My Tricycle Association Gazette had arrived in the post and inside I found an application form for the Mildenhall Rally, cycle camper pitch £19.00, covered you from Friday through until Tuesday, what a bargain.
The weather had not been of its best but hay was are not made of sugar. I clipped the box onto my BMW C1, the box is large and totally waterproof, it would hold all I needed for the trip. Following the well-trodden path, I picked up the A701 from Edinburgh down into Peebles, Selkirk where I then would join the A68 down through the Northumberland National Park, one of the most beautiful rides south there is.
On the 12th of October 1322, the Scottish army arrived in Northallerton there to discover that Edward, King of England was lodged in Rievaulx Abbey.
Bruce sent Walter Stewart off with 500 men on horseback to capture the king, but on there arrival found that the king had fled, escaping by the skin of his teeth and reputedly still in his nightshirt. The main body of the Scottish army was engaged in battle with the English army at Humbleton Hill, a large plateau with steep sides and the English army perched on top. Riding up the road, that twists and turns it’s way to the top, gave me some idea of the difficult the Scots would have encountered. Trying to climb this steep embankment would have been bad enough but with stones trundling down upon their heads, and arrows whizzing past their ears.
On into York, Friday on an August Bank Holiday it was a nightmare, I slipped up through the lines of stationary traffic and found my way onto the B1228 for Goole and then to Caistor and the B1225. This is a wonderful road along the ridge of the Lincolnshire Wolds, an area I know well having cycled here many times in the past, in the summer months hang gliding is practiced from the ridge down the shallow incline to a repetitively soft landing, gliding still remains on my bucket list.
Woody’s Top Youth Hostel, is pretty isolated so there was a good chance of a bed for the night. The heat hit me as soon as I opened the door after my day in the fresh air. Showered, feed and a pot of tea soon put me to right, after a tiring day. There was half a dozen in tonight, and all seemed to know one another. We chatted a while then turned in, early and I slept like a log.
I stopped off at the market in Louth the following morning and bought some fruit and snacks, for the journey, before making my way down to Sibsey with its six sail windmill. This is an impressive building, the windmill dates back to 1877 and was extensively restored in 2001. It still retains all its original working machinery, and after a tour of the mill, I visited the tea room, treating myself to a pot of tea and a bacon buttie.
For all the forecast of wet weather, I never suffered a drop of rain all the way down to Mildenhall although by now the clouds were bubbling up and the wind was strengthening. My body (and old age) were pitted against me so after supper I crawled into my sleeping bag for another early night. The competition over the weekend was superb, and it was great to see so many girls competing at all levels and categories.
On Sunday I headed over to Ely and as is my habit visited Ely Cathedral.
As I entered I was handed a Sunday Service sheet and advised to take a seat since the service was about to start. I had not intended to take part in any service but since I was here I did not believe my presence would bring the wrath of god down upon us. Ely Cathedral is a magnificent building that appears to have thrust itself up from out of the flatlands that surround it. The interior is cavernous so this area must have supported a much larger population at the time of its construction.
As I sat gazing up at the painted ceiling and beautiful carvings of the Choir screen and gilded altar, my eyes lightened on an angelic angel, The man that carved this delicate creature would no doubt have been illiterate, yet still able to turn out such a high standard of workmanship. Who was he thinking of when he carved her fine features, his wife, or one of his angelic children, now forever enshrined in his work.
The service was quite a lengthy affair, sung Eucharist and ministry of healing, apt I suppose since many in the congregation were like myself past their threescore and ten. A sign of the times, with falling congratulations these buildings, struggle to survive. The voices of the Ravenscroft Singers soared higher and further than you could possibly imagine, and the service was heavy in symbolism and mystery but I have to admit I was more relaxed on leaving than when I entered. No matter what you find out about the abbey from books or the internet, it is only by taking part in such a service that you will find and understand the true worth of such buildings.
One other surprise was on leaving the cathedral a peel of bells rang out from an adjacent church, this has been such a part of my life when I lived in Bingley, West Yorkshire, I had been back in Scotland for so long now I had forgotten the sound of peeling bells, so synonymous with churches in England.
St. Mary’s Church Mildenhall
The rally introduction pamphlet gave places of interest that could be visited over that weekend, and one that took my interest was that of St. Mary’s church.
St. Mary’s was holding an open day on Saturday afternoon, giving a rare opportunity for people to ascend to the top of the tower. Mentioned in the Domesday survey of 1086 the original building has been extensively extended too over the years and during the restorations from1815 to 1853 many of the original features were uncovered. Even without the opportunity to climb the tower, this church is well worth a visit, for the exquisite wood and stone carvings. However, the crowning glory has to be the Angel Roof.
The roof beams are highly decorated with carved angles, wings outstretched. During puritan times such frills were looked upon as idolatresses and on close inspected in 1930, holes were found in some of the angel’s wings and though to be from musket fire, attributed to that time.
Monday came around all to soon and the rally wound to a close. I headed out at around 7 am on Tuesday morning. The A1101 would take me from Suffolk into Cambridgeshire and on into Lincolnshire where I would pick up the A17 for Sleaford then onto the A15 north. Where the A15 and the a1103 cross, Caenby corner Roundabout, around 15 miles north of Lincoln is a roadhouse, now a transport cafe. In the days when I was stationed near here with the RAF this was a thriving pub and dance hall. Day trippers returning home to the Black Country from Mablethorpe would stop for a few hours, all intent on having a good time, making the hotel a Mecca for the lads up at the camp on a Saturday night. Today the main building is a shadow of its former self but the transport cafe, a building to the rear serves up some of the best trucker food you are likely to come across. The cafe is popular not only for truckers but bikers too. I stopped off for a full six portion breakfast washed down with two large mugs of tea, “Its gid, tell yir ma”.
Although I never once felt rain on my helmets visor, it did rain overnight night, early Tuesday morning. I had been wakened by the heavy rain beating jig time on the skin of the tents, safely curled up in my sleeping back I simply turned over and went back to sleep. The rain had passed by during the night, although the sky was still overcast and the roads wet when I set off. The wet tent was unpacked on my arrival home at around 5 pm that evening and my shower turned into an improvised drying room. A long haul on a little 150cc machine, that never missed a beat, but I was tired, it would be a day or two before I would recover from what had been a fulfilling trip.
In 1969 Lee Marvin stared, alongside a young Clint Eastwood, in a hilarious film called ‘Paint your Wagon’ and sang, in inverted commas, these lines,
Wheels are made for rollin’
Mules are made to pack,
I’ve never seen a sight that didn’t look better looking back.
The title of the song was ‘Wandering Star’ and it is the opinion of many who know me, including my big sister, that I was born under such a star, she always accused me of having ‘wheels on’.
As a spotted face teenager I was posted to Laarbruch in West Germany. Laarbruch was very close to the Dutch border, a new world had just opened up for me. I noticed that many of my fellow roommates had hung a sort of calendar chart above their beds and when I asked what they were, I was told ‘Repat Charts’ (repatriation charts). They were ticking off the days until they could return home, how odd, I thought, I was buoyed with excitement at being here, everything was so new and fresh, this was Europe and must be explored.
Cycling had been very much part of my life since childhood so on arrival at my new camp I went off in search of the PTI (physical training instructor), to ask if I could have a road bike on loan and if they had any inter-services competitions coming up that I could take part in? I was fitted out with a decent bike, from the Nuffield Trust, well the RAF did buy a lot of BMC vehicles. I found cyclist few and far between in this part of Germany, the odd commuter, so I was drawn more and moreover the border and into Holland where cycling was a national sport. I soon found myself in the company of a local cycle club and my week now comprised of five days at work, two days at play, along with the odd training evening when we went out and pulled the legs off one another. Sadly my new Dutch cycling friends spoke far better English than I, so the only words I was able to pick up were those you would not wish to use in polite company.
A German Ford, estate car came up for sale, a fellow airman who was returning home and needed to sell quickly, an estate would serve me well as a camper-van, to enable me to buy it my beautiful little Velocette would have to go. With my petrol coupons and the sale of my duty-free cigarette coupons, Europe would now become my Oyster. Every spare hour I had was spent travelling or planning to travel. It had become something of an obsession.
One day I fond myself in the company of John King, like me recently posted onto the camp, and whether as a volunteer or press-ganged I never did find out, but he played the organ at our church services. John had a little card, given to accomplished organists, you could show as proof that you had passed your organ driving test, well you get the idea. He said he had wanted to visit and play the world-famous Laurenskerk organ at the Grote Kirk in Alkmaar.
There are two organs, the smaller one, called the “Koororgel” (choir organ), was built in 1511 by Jan van Covelens and is built against the North wall of the church. It is the oldest playable organ in the Netherlands.
The larger organ at the west end of the church is one of the most famous, organs in the world. It was built by Jacobus Cletus van Hagerbeer, finished in 1645. The magnificent casework, which unusually stretches from floor to vault and makes the organ part of the architecture of the church, was designed Jacob ve Campen, a leading architect of the time. The enormous canvas shutters were painted by Caesar van Everdingen. The organ itself was rebuilt in 1723 by Frans Caspar Schnitger. He left the casework much as it was, but created an organ in the North German style within the old case. He reused much of the old fluework, but all the mixtures and reeds were new. The organ has not been changed much since then, and it is rare that 90 percent of the original material, pipework, action, soundboards, case, survives. As such it is not only one of the most beautiful but one of the most important organs anywhere on the planet.
John and I travel in my van over to Alkmaar the following weekend.
I was now seated, more or less in the middle of this magnificent church whose ceiling ascended so high above one’s head, it seemed to carry your eye all the way up to heaven. As for the organ, it dominates and demands your full attention. John, along with the resident organist, had climbed up into the organ and orchestra balcony, he was now seated behind a staircase of keyboards and above a bank of foot peddles. When he struck the opening cords of Toccata and Fugue in D minor the whole church building came to life, I can still hear that big D minor cord even today it was so overwhelming. This for me was the start of another of life’s great journeys, my introduction into the world of organ music, a love that has never left me. Strangely enough, I went to a recital here in St. Andrews only last summer and was speaking with the tutor that greeted me on my arrival, I mentioned I had heard the great organ at Laurenskerk in Alkmaar, and he told me he had trained there, it really is a small world.
This was written when I was living down in Yorkshire so a while ago. I had just recently turned 65 and had all sorts of plans for myself, no longer a white slave from Monday through to Friday. Mum had other plans for me she suffered a stroke, not deliberately I’m sure, but it did put pay to my plans. Life got in my way. I became, by default, my mother’s carer.
(although a thankless task most of the time and very tiring all of the time, and financially unrewarding, I never regretted it for one moment, it was all quality time spent with my mother).
Mum had gone into rest care so I could go off for a wee holiday, just get away from the seven-day routine. Alas, the position of mum’s carer, also made me custodian of mum’s little Yorkshire terrier, Tim. Like Mary’s little lamb, everywhere that Walter went, Tim was sure to go. With Youth Hostelling now ruled out, it would be a camping trip. I had bought a ‘new to me’ children’s bike trailer for Tim to travel in, but Tim was having none of it. I then purchased a basket, this was fixed to the rear carrier, allowing Tim to ride up at my back. Tim was in his glory, sitting high in his own little castle, anytime I left him to guard the bike and trail, (now a depository for all our goods and chattels), outside shop or visitor center Tim was quick to exploit the situation, and went into, busking for attention mode, from passers-by.
Since much of the route I had chosen would involve off-road and since I would be pulling a two-wheeled trailer loaded with all our camping equipment, and Tim’s chunky meaty bites, I chose my off-road bike. Tim and I journeyed overnight down to Thame, which is just east of Oxford, and found a safe spot to leave the van (a van converted so able to take mum’s electric buggy) ideal for all our needs. I later found out that the cul-de-sac I had chosen to park in was opposite the home of a member of the Bee-Gees, for all my younger readers, the Bee-gees was band big in the 1960s.
The melodic bell in the church tower had just chimed seven o’clock as we set out to stretch our legs after the long journey south. Tim introduced himself to a little Jack Russell and then to the dog’s owner, who then introduced himself as Tom. Tom, like his dog, turned out to be ever so friendly, he offered to show me where I could join the disused railway track at the start of our cycling adventure. As we walked Tom kept up a running commentary on the village and from his enthusiasm clearly a village he dearly loved. History oozed from every building from its church, barn, and a pub, named ‘The Bird Cage’, a timber-framed construction in the towns Corn Market. I was told it derived its name from having once been used to house French prisoners of war during Napoleonic times.
Finally, we arrived at the cycle track, Thames best-kept secret since it is found by making one’s way through a modern housing estate on the outskirts of the village, out of sight and with no guiding signs.
Back at the van the trailer was loaded and attached to the bike then off we went on our ‘Big’ adventure a round trip that would take us through some of the most beautiful countrysides in Oxfordshire.
By midday, we had travelled via Princes Risborough, Owlswich, Kemblewick, Marsh Mill, and on to Ellesbourch. It was here on the steps leading up to the church, as we sat eating ham sandwiches, or more correctly, I was eating bread, Tim was scoffing the ham from my sandwiches. When we were approached by a lady delivering the parish newsletter, Tim has that magnetic charm. In answer to my inquiry about a distinctive hill, not too far off, I was told it was Beacon Hill, overlooking Chequers.
Tim’s eagerness to go when I lifted his lead soon turned into disillusionment after half an hour of climbing in grass a little long for his liking. However, the view from the top was magnificent since we were now able to see for miles in every direction and certainly well worth the effort to get up here.
Shortly after we had settled down a Land Rover came out of nowhere, From the passenger side, a large military-type dropped onto the ground, with effortless ease, and made his way towards us. He was dressed in a blue military boiler-suit. suspended across his chest by a broad strap, he carried a small compact gun, it was so stubby it could have been a toy, however, I had no illusions that it was real. Already I knew his name “SIR”. He only stayed long enough to give us the once over, no long lens cameras, no ban the bomb flags, no high explosives cunningly disguised as a Yorkshire terrier. Strangely what I remember most about him was the size of his boots. The Song from G.I. Blues “They call your daddy, big boots” annoyingly stayed in my head for the remainder of that day.
Just north of the little village of Tring, we turned off on a path that would lead us onto the Grand Union Canal towpath. On reaching the canal we found it a little short on ‘Grand’, more an overgrown ditch. The water was shallow and crystal clear with small islands of vegetation scattered at random along its length. The banks were covered with self-seeded hardwood already in autumn profusion. The towpath, that we would now follow was deep in fallen leaves that dappled sunlight played upon. There was an abundance of water hens that scurried into their moat surrounded fortresses as we approached. The chunky shoulders of our tyres caused the dry leaves to spin up and dance unrehearsed alongside our wheels in an exhilarating manner, then billow in a kaleidoscope of streaming colour in our wake. One small boy, his faithful dog, and a bicycle all setting out on a great adventure, it does not get much better than this.
We joined the Grand Union Canal proper at Bulbourne where we stopped for refreshment. Tim had a large bowl of water me a large pint of keg beer. The next part of the journey down the canal towpath was uninspiring when you’ve seen one canal you have seen them all, so when we reach Uxbridge, I had already made up my mind to throw caution to the wind and take to the minor roads.
As we pulled into camp that night, fellow campers must have thought they had sighted the Grey Man of Ben MacDui. The limestone hardcore, which made up the path on which we had spent the day travelling had left us covered from head to toe in fine white dust. My first task, after establishing the camp was to head for the toilet and shower room. Picking up a towel and soap bag from the back of the trailer sent Tim hot-footing it into the tent, where he hid inside my sleeping bag. Like all small boys, he has an allergy to soap and water. I had most everything I owned tumbling and spinning in the washing machine so it was now time to set about washing down the bike and trailer at the same time checking them over for any signs of breakage of problem tyres.
I whiled away the evening, sitting with only the light of the campsite to see by, eating supper and downing numerous cups of tea. As darkness descended, the campsite fell silent, all that could be heard was the sounds from the nearby town floating towards us on a gentle breeze. Tim, had contented himself, he was curled up on my sleeping bag, one eye open less I go off without him. It had been a long day, so all that was left for us to do, was both curl up, me in my sleeping bag, Tim alongside me, as snug as two bugs in a rug, we slept the sleep of the God’s.
By daybreak we were packed and ready for the road, in Slough I found a greasy spoon cafe and sat down to a full breakfast, the first for some days and certainly a tribute to ‘hunger’s good kitchen’. From Slough to Windsor Great Park then into Windsor itself where the Tourist Information gave us directions to a campsite. It was early yet but we were in no hurry so booked in, did the chores, then off we headed for the town and a few pints, just to clear the dust from one’s throat, you understand.
By sun-up we were once more on our road, heading this time for Wantage, in the vale of the White Horse, for a land that is so flat all around, the road down the valley to the hill on which you find this incredible sculpture is anything but.
We parked the bike and started the long climb up to the hill fort, once again well worth the effort. It was dark O’clock by the time we reached our campsite at West End near Stanton Harcourt.
We took time out to explore Stanton Harcourt next day. Batteries recharged we were off into Oxford, not a dog-friendly town, no dogs allowed signs at ever park and riverbank. In fact, the only dogs I saw belonged to the Big Issue vendor.
All too soon the sands of time had run out on our holiday, so back we peddled into Thame and our transport home. It had been a great trip, the weather warm, sunny, and windless. We had only two punctures, both in the trailer, which had no puncture protection in the tyres. The first was on the Grand Union Canal. With the new tube fitted and the tyre reinstated I was searching in the trailer for a pump. When we set out everything in the trailer had its place and a place for everything, now it resembled a midshipman’s sea kist, everything on top, and nothing to hand. Just then a chap pulled up on his bike, it had two large panniers front and rear. The halo effect said cycle tourist but as it turned out he worked at a cafe in the nearby park and presumably his panniers were full of goodies for the cafe. Anyway, he whipped the pump from his bike and started attacking the wheel before I had a chance to retrieve ours. Off he went again, at a great rate of knots, with my thanks ringing in his ears. The hand drying machine at the campsite was used to help in the repair of the tube which would be required the following day. Once back on the roads however no further problems were encountered.
The Banksman at the pit head was responsible for the safety of men going down and up in the cage. He would have been in contact with the winding-man and with his opposite number at the pit bottom they worked as a team using a system of bells to signal one another.
The shift was nearing an end and men were gravitating towards the cage at the pit bottom, once there they sat around chewing the fat, waiting their turn to go up in the cage to the pit head. Everything would be discussed at such gatherings, work, unions, money, or lack of, all very much in good humour.
The talk went around and around until it turned to which pit had the fastest cage. The volume was rising now as everyone wanted to tell their story. Jimmy sat, quietly in the corner, back against the wall, his face giving nothing away.
“Here’s a man that’s worked in the most pit around here in his time, what do you say, Jimmy, what pit has the fastest cage?”
Jimmy thought about it for a wee bit, then went on, I was getting on the cage at the pit bottom of the Number 9 Colliery in Lochgelly, I had forgotten to lift my graith, and asked the lad to hand me in my pick and shovel, at the pit head, the Banksman asked,
“What shovel will that be Jimmy?”.
Spell you name for me
After the Second World War, Britain welcomed many immigrants into the country, they were not only escaping the war but the devastation the war had wrought on their country. We were pleased to have them, for at that time so many young men did not return from the war and take up their old positions here at home.
The new pit at Comrie, in West Fife, would draw in many of those refugees and immigrants, amongst them lads from Poland. Now it happened that a number of Polish workers were sent down to the pit bottom and told to find Jimmy Hamilton, he would instruct them as to their duties.
Jimmy, needing to keep account of those working under him and suspecting that being Polish they would all have a name that would be difficult enough to pronounce far less spell. Jimmy took out his book and with pencil poised asked them to line up and one at a time, spell out their names.
The first did as he was told, S-M-I-T-H, he spelt.
Balmerino Abbey, (this was a run I did a couple of months ago).
Out on the road by 8 am, the smoke signals coming from the lum at Eden Mill, said winds light and coming from the east. I passed through Leuchars without seeing another soul and up and into St Michaels before turning off the A919 and onto the unclassified road for Wormit. Just before the village, I turned onto the road for Balmerino Abbey, my chosen destination.
The site of Balmerino Abbey lies on the south bank of the River Tay three miles east of Wormit. Balmerino was a Cistercian abbey, inhabited by monks from Melrose, and founded by the widow of William the lion, Queen Ermengarde, and her son Alexander 11, in 1227. It is believed that she intended it as her own burial place.
The layout was much like most at that time, three sides of a rectangle the Chapter house, (normally the tallest building) making up one elevation and the Presbytery, monks Choir, and Aisle the other. The Cloisters were a covered walkway where most of the day to day work would be carried out, and would normally be set facing south to take advantage of the light. At Balmerino Abbey, however, the cloisters face north. The only reason for this can be the importance of the waters of the Tay.
Fishing in Fife can be traced to the earliest phases of Scottish prehistory. The earliest known settlement of Scotland Morton, from c 7000 bc onwards was by hunter-gatherers, and coastal communities were largely dependent on fish, they gathered sessile shellfish like oysters and mussels, and although historical records are sparse, there can be no doubt that fish from the rivers and estuaries as well as the sea continued to be important throughout history. The abbey of Balmerino had control of many of the salmon fishing’s in the Tay estuary, given by charter to them by Robert the Bruce (Campbell 1867:95) and this would have proved lucrative for the abbey coffers.
One of Scotland’s oldest trees (the oldest in Fife) grows in the abbey’s grounds – a Spanish Chestnut rumoured to have been planted by Queen Ermengarde but actually is only 400 and 435 years old. (if anyone offers you Spanish Chestnut wood for your wood-burning stove, say “thanks, but no thanks” you will need a ton of coal to burn a tone of Spanish Chestnut).
All the Abbeys in Fife, with few exceptions, are like Balmerino ruinous or erased altogether. The most intact example of monastic buildings in Scotland is Incholm where all three ranges are complete and still with roofs. Then when you want a ready supply of stone for your extension to the farmhouse or boundary wall, you take it from a local source you do not take a boat to Incholm to find it.
Turning right I started the long hard climb from sea level to 133 meters above sea level in only around 2 miles, there were parts I was zig-zagging the width of the road to keep any kind of momentum over 5 mph.
Climbing out of Balmerino,
My legs were still doing their stuff,
With all the force and effect,
Of a pink-powder-puff.
At the X roads, I turned left for Cupar, for I wanted to visit Mountquhanie Castle just a couple of miles away now. The castle is adjacent to the old stables block from a later date, and the tower (dovecot) that was once part of the castle is now incorporated into cottages to house farm workers.
Mountquhanie Castle is a 17th-century range the original building, now ruinous, was a keep measuring externally 43-1/2 X 26 feet. And if the thickness of walls is taken into consideration (normally 6 feet thick) was not all that roomy. It was three-story, below the wall-head. A west range was added in the 17th century, two-story in height with a circular tower in the south-west angle, used as a dovecot, (the cooing must have driven the occupants crazy). The only entrance of the south building remains with a lintel inscribed 1683. another stone dated 1592, (not in situ) is above the backdoor of the Home Farm. Munquhane is mentioned in 1459, and a charter dated 1547-8 specified the “tower, foralice and manor-house”.
Soon after Mountquhanie, I turned onto the A92 for Glenrothes and then onto the unclassified road for Moonzie, from here it was almost a repeat of my trip to Lordscairnie Castle earlier. Down into Cupar, where I spend some time sitting at the War Memorial, in warm sunshine, eating my, by now, rather bruised banana and finishing off what was left of my water. Nothing for it now but up out of Cupar on the A91 and into a headwind all the way home.
Joan Baez for company today at present singing “House of the Rising Sun” A long time since I spent some time with Joan. I was cycling home to Bingley one day, and as I passed through Shipley I almost fell from my bike for there was a notice tied to the lamp post announcing, Joan Baez in Concert the Old Tram Shed. The Tram Shed has been turned into a bar and when I arrived I sat on one of the barstools, at the semi-circular bar and ordered a beer. There was no stage only tables and chairs. In walked Joan with a battered old guitar case, put it on a nearby table, removed the guitar and sat on a barstool only feet away, I was in heaven, me her biggest fan and here she was giving the small audience a concert as if we were sitting at a party in someone living room. I cycled home in a trance, and in the pub the following Wednesday, (a group of 60 something would gather in the local club on a Wednesday) I announced that I had been at a Joan Baez concert. It was greeted with blank stares, Philistines.
From 1950 to the early 1960s I was heavily influenced by that American propaganda machine, Hollywood. My world was now in bright De Lux colour, and the screen size had opened up to three times the size of the black and white, kitchen sink drama ‘B’ movies that were still churned out at the London Pinewood studios we now had Cinemascope and Todd-AO. The old actors of the late 40s and early 50s were fast disappearings, their places were taken by a new breed, not only could they act, but they could sing and dance, in glorious Technicolor, this was the era when the musicals would be given the Holywood treatment. Carousel, South Pacific, State Fair, Oklahoma, My Fair Lady, The King and I, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and the very first one I remember seeing Rosemarie, and who could ever forget, an effervescent Doris Day in Calamity Jane.
By the late 1950s we had the ‘Rat Pack’ no one really knows where the name originated but the Rat Pack was an informal group of entertainers that hang out with Humphrey Bogart and his wife Lauren Bacall at their pad in Los Angeles, among them were such names a Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. They appeared together on stage and in films in early 1960. Talent oozed from every pore of their being. They were smart dressers, they could sing, they could dance and were just so damn cool.
In 1958 Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and the then 24-year-old Shirley MacLaine were cast together in a Vincente Minnelli directed film ‘Some Came Running’ being shot at Madison Indiana. I remember in an interview on television many years later, Shirley MacLaine was asked about the making of that film. Shirley was sharing a house with the Rat Packers, and quipped, “How many times did I answer the door because the cannolis had arrived by private plane from Hollywood?”
In the film, Sinatra wore a white jacket, unheard of in Scotland, and always ended up with the girl. I had to get myself a white jacket. There was nothing that came close in the shops in Dunfermline unless you had it made, but I could not wait that long, so off I went to Princess Street in Edinburgh. There in the corner window of one of the big department stores, was a lightweight white linen jacket, it was an outlandish price, but I had to have it.
Inside the shop, the salesman had its twin off the rail, and in one graceful movement had me in the jacket. He placed me in front of the full lengthen mirror, and clutching a big handful of the jacket with his left hand behind my back, whilst brushed away invisible specks of dust from my shoulders with his right, “Made for you Sir,” he said. In the mirror, it certainly looked a good fit.
Friday night arrived and the Red Hawks were playing at the ‘Palace’, shaved and scrubbed, and with a rather healthy splash of Old Spice, I was ready for the dancing. The hall was bursting at the seams, and there in the corner was the wee lass from Alison’s, she was gorgeous. I went over and asked her for a dance, she accepted, she was making me look good, jiving out and in, as I held her hand and shuffled in front of her. See mum, I’m dain’ it ma’ sel’ – I a see yi son, you’re off clever. Three dances in, I bought her a lemonade, sort of unofficial rule.
I asked “Can I see you home, I have my motorbike”.
“Yes, that’ll be great” she said. Boy this jacket is the business, worth every penny.
I ran her home and we stood outside at the gate chatting until her grandmother came out and told her it was time she was in.
“Can I see you again, maybe the pictures or Mary’s cafe on Wednesday, the bikers all hang out there on a Wednesday night”.
“I’d rather go to the pictures” she admitted.
“OK, I’ll pick you up Saturday, around six, if that all right?” she nodded, “aye right,” she said, “but don’t wear that jaicket, you look like a waiter in it”. Clearly, the lass had no taste.
There are time when you are on a long cycle run and your concentration starts to wane, think, those long straight roads in France, with milestones reminding you every kilometre, just how far you still have to travel to your destination, or travelling during the night when all you can see is limited by the beam of your light. At such times I might sing away to myself, or recite poetry, and one in particular that I learned a long time ago as a schoolboy was ‘Boy in the train’ by Margaret C Smith.
It can be a bit embarrassing when another cyclist sneaks up behind you and as he passes you hear him mumble, “Englander fou”
Whit wey does the engine say ‘Toot-toot’? Is it feart to gang in the tunnel?
Whit wey is the furnace no pit oot When the rain gangs doon the funnel? What’ll I hae for my tea the nicht? A herrin’, or maybe a haddie?
Has Gran’ma gotten electric licht?
Is the next stop Kirkcaddy?
There’s a hoodie-craw on yon turnip-raw! An’ seagulls! – sax or seeven.
I’ll no fa’ oot o’ the windae, Maw, Its sneckit, as sure as I’m leevin’.
We’re into the tunnel! we’re a’ in the dark! But dinna be frichtit, Daddy, We’ll sune be comin’ to Beveridge Park, And the next stop’s Kirkcaddy!
Is yon the mune I see in the sky? It’s awfu’ wee an’ curly,
See! there’s a coo and a cauf ootbye,
An’ a lassie pu’in’ a hurly! He’s chackit the tickets and gien them back, Sae gie me my ain yin, Daddy.
Lift doon the bag frae the luggage rack, For the next stop’s Kirkcaddy!
There’s a gey wheen boats at the harbour mou’, And eh! dae ya see the cruisers?
The cinnamon drop I was sookin’ the noo Has tummelt an’ stuck tae ma troosers. . . I’ll sune be ringin’ ma Gran’ma’s bell, She’ll cry, ‘Come ben, my laddie’,
I was a bit lazy this morning did not get on the road until 8.30 followed my usual route, Knock Hill Dairsie Mains and onto the A91 for Cupar. I stayed on the A91 all the way out to Bow of Fife then left for Letham. I once met a lad from Letham, he told me he was moving abroad, going to live with his daughter. “That will be nice for you” I replied “Where does your daughter live?” – “Edinburgh” he told me.
Monimail Tower, only a fraction of what must once have been a grand country residence of the archbishops of St Andrews. The main structure still standing was intended as a self-contained suite of rooms for the archbishop himself.
Built into one corner of a high walled courtyard. What strikes you right away is the elaborate detail of the tower. On the south side, there are traces of an imposing range, lit by large windows, which may have contained the main hall of the residence. Lining up with the remains of the curtain wall, some distance to the north, is the stump of a circular tower, with shot-holes which must once have overlooked the outer angles of the north-east corner of the courtyard.
Reputed to have been built by Cardinal David Beaton, who was archbishop between 1537 and 1546, and who was a great patron of architecture. The parapet has the date 1578, and the coat of arms of Sir James Balfour (who had acquired the property in 1564). the medieval residence was abandoned after the first Earl of Melville built Melville House nearby in about 1700, although the tower retained as a feature in the garden, (nice garden ornament).
You can go up into the tower all the way to the roof for some magnificent views all the way over to the Lomond Hills, and down into the walled garden below.
The upper room in the tower was fitted out with some furnisher and rug on the floor.
The room below was a small museum with artifacts from the first settlers in Fife and on the walls were the stories of those associated with the building itself. One thing I will say about living in a tower such as this, they are not child friendly, those stairs are a disaster for anyone under 7 and over 70.
Nearby was this home, built on a lorry trailer, the registration and plates were Polish and the trailer very reminiscent of trailers common on the continent (twin axils, close coupled and in the centre of the trailer) before articulated semi-trailers became the fashion.
I went off down the drive to Melville House just for a nose and found this rather beautiful treehouse, and some clever metalwork as a gate closer.
Next stop Fernie Castle and although only a few miles away, I found I was battling into the face of a strong headwind, oh no, help ma boab.
Fernie Castle was once the possession of the Fernie’s of Fernie, however, in 1510 it was granted to a man rejoicing in the name of Florentinus Adinulty, by James 1V. The conditions of the estate being granted left us with good insight into what was expected of the buildings around the residence of a laird. He must provide granary, byre, stable, and dovecot, together with orchards, gardens, beehives, hedges, and oak plantations.
Interesting that beehives should be part of the conditions, for often today you will come across beehive alcoves in boundary walls or the walls of old buildings. They did not have hives with movable frames at that time, so swarms would be collected in straw skeps and these would be placed in the alcove in the wall for protection from the weather. The bees would be killed off, or somehow persuaded to leave their hive at the end of the season and the honey collected
The castle itself (now serving as a hotel) is much as it would have been when Adinulty built it. A rectangular main block with the hall at the first-floor level and a circular tower, at the north-west angle. A square tower containing the entrance and stairway on the south-west angle. The castle was enlarged, when ownership returned to the Fernie’s in the later sixteenth century, by the addition of a fourth story. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries would see further additions, by which time the castle had passed to the Balfour family.
Again only a few miles farther on along the A92 Dundee road, which proved to be busy with heavy lorries and vans, then half a mile or so up an unclassified road lies Collairnie Castle, but I was battling to keep any kind of momentum in double figures so strong was the wind today.
Collairnie Castle, I loved this building with its crow-step gables and ornate turrets. There are lots of architectural details in this building just for decoration such as horizontal stringing and decorative moldings, around shot-holes, they’re to deflect the incoming shot. However, the finest features of the castle were two ceilings decorated with paintings of the coats of arms of the owners of the castle and their connections, (showing just how close-knit these Fife families were). At first sight, Collairnie Castle looks like a tower-house but this was in fact only a small part of what had been a considerably larger L-shape castle, which this tower was only a wing. On the lintel above the main entrance is the date 1581 which also has the initials of the owner carved into the stone, David Barclay and his wife Margaret Wemyss. Above the door, a gabled window has been inserted and it carries the date 1607 and the initials of Helen Balfour, the wife of the later David Barclay; this gable probably came from the main body of the building.
Back onto the A91 then at the crossroads, I turned onto the A913 for Cupar. The crosswind was killing on the long climb up from the crossroads and even once I crested the summit, now mostly downhill all the way into Cupar, I still struggled with the wind until Kilmaron Den. In Cupar I stopped in at Cupar Motorcycles (safe enough today for it was closed) for a wee seat on the wall to finish off the water in my bottle. The climb out of Cupar on what was by now weary legs was a killer, head down and keep the pedal turning, grinding away in low gears, actually I found when I reached home that the bike had not been out of the lowest ring on the front chain-set from leaving Cupar, it was tough riding today. This is why the French call TT (Time Trial) ‘The Race of Truth’ no place to hide, no peloton to shield you from the elements and tow you along with it until you are ready to make a dash for the line, no TT means you are on your tod.
I have been reading a brilliant book by Paula Mitchell Marks, ‘In A Barren Land’ American Indian Dispossessions and Survival. About how the Europeans came to America and wiped out the indigenous peoples. Despite the American film industries interpretation of events, it was diseases, such as smallpox and influenza, that people from Europe had grown an immunity to, and then carried with them to America, (and not just America) that brought about the demise of the Native Americans, as much as slaughter by the US Cavalry. While I was thinking about what I had just read, a little rhyme that we as children would chant came into my head.
After a lifetime at sea, my father found employment in the pits of West Fife. Growing up in a mining village the talk was mostly about coal and the pit. Many of the stories I heard during those days would be humorous, this is one such story.
Pits had adequate pumping facilities for removing water from the working, pumping it from the pit bottom to the pithead. However during development work you might get ingress of water and if pumps and pipes could not be installed quickly enough this would result in lost production. Comrie was a particularly wet pit and wet money would be paid on a regular basis, as an incentive to keep production going whilst pumps and pipes were installed.
During the driving of a new road ingress water had been pouring in, so bad was it that working conditions had become unbearable. At the end of the day-shift and start of the back-shift the men held a meeting to decide what action should be taken. The Union Convener was having difficulty keeping control of the situation, the workforce were demanding to see the Agent.
During the quickly arranged meeting extra wet money was offered, but not enough to satisfy the miners, they wanted more. The Agent, unsympathetic to the men’s demands, suggested they draw ‘Skins’ (waterproofs) from the store. This did not go down well and a dissenting voice rang out from the crowd.
“Skins! Its fins we need”
More money was forthcoming and the men returned to work.
When my father went from shot-fireman to the dizzy heights of deputy, a sort of health and safety inspector underground in the coal mine his duties would now involve testing for gas, checking the general condition of the roof, and measuring water levels. This work would often take him into old workings and places where time had little meaning. Keeping track of time would require the purchase of a watch, however, coal mines and watches did not good bedfellows make. Dust, water, and a harsh working environment would all be pitted against such a delicate instrument.
The pages of the ‘Exchange and Mart’ cast up a likely candidate that would fit the bill. The advert told him it was shockproof, showerproof, dustproof, and came with a lifetime of service guarantee. The watch, cleverly marketed as ‘Aircraft’, therefore quality assured, could be his for the princely sum of 1 pound 2 shillings and 6 pence. Dad duly sent off a postal order for that sum and in return received a shiny new pocket watch.
To protect the watch dad fashioned a pocket made from an old piece of sheepskin. Once secure within this pocket the two were placing inside a Four Square tobacco tin, such tins were common place at that time, and not only did such tins have a screw on lid, but an airtight seal to keep the original contents in fresh condition, ideal for keeping dust and moisture away from the watch. Now the watch, secure in it sheepskin jacket and further protected by its steel overcoat, as a first line of defence against knocks and dents, was ready for work.
Dipping his lamp as he approached a team working at the coal face, one lad, on recognising my father, called out.
“Have you got the time on you Jimmy?”
Dad removed the watch, first from its metal case, then its sheepskin jacket, but before he could read off the time the lad called out again, in a voice loud enough for all to hear.
“A telt yi Jimmy had money, even his watch has a fur coat”
On the 17th February 1958, CND was established; I can not believe I have been supporting and marching in step with CND for over sixty years now. I was in the RAF the following year and had been posted to Hemswell, in Lincolnshire for a few months. Hemswell at the time, the home base of Britain’s first line of defence, their Thor Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles. Hemswell had five satellite stations scattered around Lincolnshire, where the missiles were housed and would, if required, be fired from. It would take around one hour to take the missiles from their silos, stand them upright and fill them with liquid oxygen and nitrogen, knowing full well that we had a maximum of only three minute warning of incoming missiles from (the old bogeyman) Russia, via any of our radar stations scattered around the country. I’m sure if we were on anyone’s hit list, Hemswell and her satellite station would have had a circle drawn around them with a notice saying ‘No immediate danger’. Not only were they inadequate as defence against a first strike, the Americans had already developed solid fuel rockets (the minute man) that could be in permanent readiness and presumably the Russians had a similar rocket system too, so Britain’s first line of defence was already obsolete, but we went through the motions anyway, much like Britton’s nuclear submarine deterrent today, political rather than stategical.
When moving these rockets around, mostly shipping them from site to RAF Scampton to be loaded onto Globemaster aircraft and taken to America for servicing and/or test firing. This was a real pantomime and would require a convoy with an American officer, alongside the driver in the truck carrying the missile, or missiles warhead. He, of course, came complete with sidearms. As you can imagine this was a slow process on such narrow roads and a stop would be made in Market Raisen for NAAFI break. The officers would go off to the tea rooms, other ranks, the little village café. The café had no shiny Jukebox, however, the owner did have a portable record player, on which he would play his collection of Jazz LP, his customers could choose tracks. So popular did this café become that bikers and young students from around the area were drawn to it like they had been when school students to the back of the school bikeshed. I frequented the café a lot at that time travelling there on my beautiful little 1959 350cc Velocette Viper motorcycle, like the image below (which belonged to me and the hire purchase firm).
I soon became involved with CND and went on early marches and rallies in and around London; the A15 to Peterborough, there to pick up the A1 south, was a well-trodden path for me and the RAF Club in London gave me accommodation for the night. My riding gear consisted of an RAF Second World War sheepskin flying jacket, white woolen sea-boot stocking turned over the top of Wellington boots, ex WD goggles, a pudding basin skid lid, (a motorcycle helmet that resembled a pudding basin with ear flaps) and to complete my attire I had a scarf pulled up over my mouth and nose.
The trips south would be punctuated with calls at transport cafes that were dotted all the way along major trunk roads, none more famous for bikers than the Ace Café on London’s Outer Ring Road. Transport cafes were hot noisy places with their obligatory shiny jukebox and where the main food served was a mixed grill (a big fry up) You would garble your order through frozen lips and received in return a big pint mug of steaming strong tea. Cradling this in both hands, until enough feeling came back into frozen face you would attempt a drink; even then you dribbled tea down your chin like a geriatric OAP. Although the speed limit for lorry’s had been lifted from 20 MPH a fully laden lorry would have had difficulty breaking even that limit and with duel carriageways still few and far between big convoys of trucks, resembling trains rather than road transport plied up and down Britain’s highways and byways at the speed of the slowest truck, a motorcycles was really the only way to pass on through such convoys. Not until the building of the A1M motorway did things start to change. As ever Britain was the cow’s tail when it came to forward planning and transport companies rather than buy British went to Sweden, (Volvo) Germany (Mercedes) and Holland (DAF) to buy their new trucks that were capable of sustaining high speeds on the new motorway, (Europe having had Autobahns since the 1940s) this was the final nail in the coffin of HGV vehicle manufacture in the UK.
One day when the RAF unveiled one of their missiles on an exercise, they were less than happy to find a CND sticker plastered on its side. You just would not believe the howls that when up when the smelly stuff hit the fan. We were treated to endless patrols, guard duties, exercises, you would have thought world war three had broken out, thankfully they never found the culprit, he would have been hung drawn and quartered, not by the powers at being, but by his ‘no longer’ mates, having subjected them to many extra duties and marching up and down. Strangely enough, the Snowdrops (RAF Military Police) did not suspect a lowly Airman running around with a CND sticker on the back mudguard of his motorcycle and one prominently displayed on the back of his pudding basin helmet; anyway I was posted to Germany soon after that little episode, phew!
Again today the cloud base in St Andrews was down at zero as I set out on my ride, a far cry from a beautiful day in spring (2020) when I cycled to Lindor Abbey
Monday rest day and I slept on until after 8 o’clock although I had been in bed before 10 o’clock the evening before. I whiled away the day not doing very much and later went off down to the harbour and sat there a while, daydreaming, I didn’t seem to have any get up and go this morning.
Tuesday a completely new ball game, up with the larks feeling good to go, lights, camera, action. There was still a chill in the morning air as I travelled the road into Cupar, by now a well-worn path. I stayed on the A91 all the way to Melville Lodges roundabout and just a few hundred yards further on I called in to see the Windmill converted to a Dove Cot.
The dovecot is circular and was apparently converted from a windmill. The internal diameter is 12 feet and the walls are 3 feet thick. The roof is covered with Scottish slate, unlike welsh slate, these are a bit misshaped and when laid have a unique textured look. The dovecot stands upon a flat-topped mound 20.0m in diameter and 3.0m high. Beneath the mound is a barrel-vaulted mound measuring 12.0m deep by 3.0m wide and 2.5m high, there is no apparent communication with the dovecote above. There is a similar mill with a vaulted chamber below at Dunbarney Perthshire, dated, mid to late 17th century.
Back on the A91 I turned off for Collessie, at first I thought I had turned onto a farm track by mistake, but no, up a wee climb and I was in Collessie. On the way up I passed a field with five horses, thereto was a young foul, all seemed to be of a heavy horse breed with big feet. Which for some reason reminded me of the film Notting Hill.
In the film Anna Scott (played by Julia Roberts) was chilling on the settee in William Thatcher’s (played by Hugh Grant) living room,
Anna, “you have big feet”
Anna, you know what they say about big fee?
William “no, what do they say about big feet?”
Anna, “big feet – big – shoe size”
When I returned home, I looked up Newton Farm and found the breed of horse to be Clydesdale, and that the farmer was one Ronnie Black, dedicated to saving the breed.
There is a Pictish standing stone in the field beyond the farm. Carved on the surface of the stone is a large human figure and two symbols. The figure is walking towards the left and carrying a large rectangular shield and a spear. There is an arch symbol over traces of what has been identified as a Pictish beast. I have seen pictures of this stone but since we are in lock-down and to get to the stone you have to go through the farm and farmers field to get to it, I though better left for another day.
It was such a beautiful day, and all around I found all manner of wild fauna and lots and lots of primroses.
I stopped off at the church to drink from my bottle and wander around, the church it’s actually up for sale, I could imagine the sales pitch “well-maintained building, very quiet neighbours”. Although only a few miles from Cupar this village seems far from the maddening crowds.
I dropped down the steep narrow road turned right at the bottom and headed for Lindores Loch, this is God’s own country the road follows closely the railway line to Dundee, weaving its way along the valley floor. A train did pass along the line as I cycle on and I was surprised how quiet it was. The loch was a mirror with the odd willow the wisp scurrying across its surface. This is cycling at its best.
I left the road after the village of Lindores to visit the church on the far bank of the loch, both gates were chained shut but I still managed to get a good idea of its size and shape, the bell-tower with its large swinging bells was a surprise. When I lived in Bingley I took up bell ringing, we practised every Tuesday and rang peels on a Sunday, also if there was a wedding, we would ring the bells then. I did learn to manage the bell, holding it at the top of its stroke, but my timing was all over the place (is that a bum note I hear you play there Walter) The bells made so much noise I often wondered if anyone noticed my mistiming? Strangely enough, if I did not try to concentrate so hard and simply let the rhythm take charge I was better, better as in relative.
The present church was built in 1826/27, to a design by William Bum, replacing the pre-reformation church, St Magridin’s, which stands as a ruin nearby. That church was consecrated by Bishop David de Bernham in 1242 and in pre-Reformation days was under the control of Lindores Abbey. Abdie and Dunbog parishes became a united charge under one minister from December 1965, with the church building in Dunbog closing in 1983 upon the ecclesiastical parish of Abdie and Dunbog being linked with Newburgh.
The parish seems original to have had the name Lindores. However, when Lindores Abbey was granted a charter in 1178, the monks kept the old name and thereafter called the parish Abdie (or Abden), meaning “The lands pertaining to the Abbey of God”.
Back on the A913 I turned left for the Den of Lindores, this is a long downhill run all the way into Newburgh. I stopped off at the old castle ruin to take some photographs and a lad pulled up on his bike for a blether. His was an electric bicycle, in that typical Dutch style (sit up and beg). I said I may have to buy one of those in a few years time, to aid me on the hills. He said he bought it when he retired (did not say when he retired but later told me he was 71 years old) and has covered 4 thousand miles on the bike, now that’s a lot of miles. He told me that the buildings we were standing next to were the old farm steading. They were bought some years back and the buyer removed the roofs and was intending to pull them down and build houses there in their place. He had not heard anything more about the building of houses since, (possibly the buildings are listed and can not be knocked down). I got the feeling he would have blathered all day, so I made my excuses and went off to photograph the old ruined castle.
On into Newburgh village turning at the filling station and into Lindores Abbey. This is a massive site, it must have been one impressive abbey in its day. The remains of the abbey are very fragmented but it is still possible to work out the basic layout. The Cloisters were straight ahead as you enter the gate. To the right of what would have been a quadrangle are the Chapter House, so-called because this is where the daily reading of the chapter, the rules of St Benedict read aloud (learning by rot) and what remains of the south wing of the Choir. Beyond the Cloister quadrangle is the remanent of the wall that would have formed the main building the North Aisle and Nave with a Bell Tower in the north-west corner. You will see the round stumps of pillars that would have once held up the roof in the Nave. The remains of two child-size stone coffins, which are said to belong to Earl David’s children can still be seen in the south transept.
The Abbey was founded in 1190 by David earl of Huntingdon (grandson
of David 1st) it was inhabited by Tironensians monks, the Tironensians had a number of important houses in Scotland but it was very much a Scottish sect and hardly found outside Scotland. David 1st was a great patron of the Tironensians and founded an abbey at Selkirk (later moved to Kelso) and was the first house of the ‘reformed’ Benedictine religious orders.
I returned home on the A913 into Cupar where I picked up the A91 for home. Using the main roads is fine during the ‘stay at home’ shutdown, for the traffic is light and the road surfaces in better condition than ‘B’ roads and unclassified, so it is much easier to keep a good momentum going. Today was a bit special.
Over the last few months, I have travelled extensively around North East Fife and I can not contain myself any longer. The amount of aluminum cans, the contents of which, if marketing men are to be believed, gives you wings, and after drinking such a liquid, even pigs can fly, Aye right. Whatever the merits of the contents of such a beverage, please, please, please, once the can is empty stick it in the back of your cycling jacket and take them home with you. One thing I do know, there are no fairies, with or without wings, coming during the night to pick up all those empty cans, I see at frequent intervals along the side of the road.
The sea fog hung over St Andrews as I removed the bike from the back of my van, lights on, cycling top zipped up to the neck and I was off. The air was cold, a big change from yesterday, but I seem to peddle stronger in such conditions.
The thing I love about cycling, you are given time to yourself, time to look around at the world, make up silly little rhymes in your head, dream up new adventures. Back in the 60s, we were told that machines would take the grind out of our working day and we would all be working a three day week (we did for a time during the strike, could never understand why that did not continue, we produced more as a country in those three days than we did in five, where was the Unions?) Then came the 80s the age of the digital revolution. Again we were told how that would change our lives forever and for the better, what would we do with all this leisure time?
I was on a construction site some years back and overheard the site agent and the foreman in conversation. The agent seeing a drain layer stop and roll a cigarette commented on the amount of site time that must be wasted rolling cigarettes. I’m sure the same agent if he were on a site today would have the same comment, not about cigarette rolling but mobile phones. I can not help but wonder if all this automation and digital technology have really given us any more freedom? How much of our day do we spend on a mobile phone, talking, texting? On a computer e-mailing of involved in social media, or simply staring at a television screen?
The lockdown has given me the opportunity to cycle around North East Fife on relatively empty roads, what a treat. Alas, my cycling has been far more successful than the publishing of my log, it has been somewhat neglected. I hope to make a menses by posting some of my trips over the next, days, week, and by so doing redeem myself.
The air was still, so as good a day as any to do my run along the coast from Elie to Anstruther via Killie Castle and Kilconquhar.
The A917 out of St Andrews, at Brownhills I wheeled onto the B9131 for Anstruther. 8 miles on my first port of call the Dovecote at Pitkierie, the structure is situated out in the middle of a newly sown field of potatoes, so long-distance shot.
Then on unclassified roads as far as Kellie Castle. As you can see from the photograph it, like everything else, in lock-down. I wanted to walk over to the Kellie Castle dovecot but I did not like the look of the Lamas, they looked placed enough, but it’s the quiet one you have to watch.
Kellie Castle is one of the most homely of all the Fife castles, and much of that is down to James Lorimer, father of the architect Sir Robert Lorimer, it was he that did much or the restoration work after he bought the property in 1878. The earliest part of the castle dated back to the 1500s and was built by a member of the Oliphant family. The castle passed to Viscount Fentoun, later first Earl of Kellie in 1617 and various changes were made over the following years, Several fine plaster ceilings were inserted, one dated 1617 and another 1676, whilst other alterations were made in the course of the eighteenth century. But what is most remarkable when you look at Kellie Castle is how all of these alterations seem to compliment each other.
A few cyclists on the road today, one serious, the others like me tourists. The road from Kelly Castle to Kilconquhar, was very quiet. Kilconquhar the land the time forgot, and where I meet a horse and buggy, the owner having a chin-wag with his close neighbour.
The church here is particularly beautiful built-in rich red sandstone, not the best of photographs.
It is only a couple of miles from here down to the start of our coastal trip, Earlsferry. The ruin to the west of the chapel is those of the hospital of Ardross (not Elie or Earlsferry). This was the north end of the ferry from North Berwick, and used by travellers and pilgrims alike. Founded in 1154 by Duncan, fourth Earl of Fife, and granted by Duncan, fifth Earl, to the nuns of North Berwick. There is little left of what could have been the boundary walls of a hospital but the photograph is of the chapel that was here and possible a cemetery attached to the hospital as the earth around it is full of human bones. The chapel was built by MacDuff, Earl of Fife, in 1093 and repaired in 1830. now a ruin.
Elie was my home for many years and I know it well having walked most of it. I decided to take a trip out to Elie Ness where the lighthouse stands. The path is simply that, a path and I am no off road cyclist, this is hard work and a bit scary. The lighthouse was commissioned in the early part of the 20th century, the reason put forward for the lighthouse here was that when off Elie Ness in bad weather they could not see the light at the Isle of May and Inchkeith. The builder would be David Alan Stevenson B.Sc. F.R.S.E. M.Inst. CE, and if that was not enough – grandson of Robert Stevenson of Bell Rock fame and cousin of Robert Louis Stevenson.
In September 1907 permission from the admiralty was received to approach Coast Guard to Become attendants and on 16th October 1907 financial terms were agreed with HM Coast Guard and reserve Edinburgh that the Coast Guardsmen Stationed at Elie would become attendants of the light. Work on the lighthouse started in December 1907 and was completed by June 1908. On the first of October 1908 notice was given to mariners that the light would be exhibited form Elie Ness, flashing white – one every six seconds all around the horizon.
Just one hundred yards or so further on is Lady Anstruther’s Tower. It was built in 1770 for Jenny Anstruther, daughter of a Scottish Merchant. She was renowned for her beauty, and reputed to be a bit of a flirt. She used the tower to relax in after her skinny dipping activities in the sea below, changing in the man-made cave there. Prior to her immersion she would send a servant into the town of Elie to ring a bell to let residents know to stay away.
A bell would ring around the town,
To tell the folk that Lady Jenny was going down,
For a wee dip in the sea,
Now since the Lady preferred swimming starker,
She wouldn’t want no nosy Parkers,
Do you see?
Back onto the main road and a mile or so up the coast we find Ardross Castle although little now remains.
The ruins of Ardross Castle, dating back to at least the 15th century, the castle occupies a fine defensive coastal position standing high on sandstone cliffs overlooking a sandy beach below.
In 1068 a Northumbrian knight named Merleswain came to Scotland, and was granted lands in Fife. The first mention of Ardross seems to occur in the mid-12th century. Merleswain’s grandson, also named Merleswain, was granted a charter of Ardross by William the Lion in the last quarter of the 12th century.
Sir William Dishington married Elizabeth Bruce, sister of Robert the Bruce, around 1309, and one of their sons, also Sir William Dishington, later became the Sheriff of Fife. Some historians have the first Sir William as the builder of Ardross Castle, while some have the second Sir William. Although the remains of the castle have often been ascribed to the 15th century, it seems entirely possible that it was built at an earlier date, and for either Sir William to have been responsible it would certainly have been built in the 14th century.
Certainly in 1402 the second Sir William’s son, Thomas Dishington, received a charter from Robert II granting him the barony and castle of Ardross after they were resigned by his father, while also referring to him as “dilecto nepoti nostro” (our dear nephew). The fact that the castle is specifically mentioned certainly suggests it was in existence in the 14th century.
The castle has had a few owners over its lifetime and in 1853 Sir Wyndham Anstruther sold the Elie estates to William Baird, son of Alexander Baird of Lockwood, and as such Ardross Castle became his property.
Following Baird’s death in 1864, the Elie estates, including Ardross Castle, passed to his son, William Baird of Elie.
In 1928 the estates were sold to Sir Michael Nairn, and they are now owned by the Elie Estate Trust, which is under the stewardship of Sir Michael’s grandson, Sir Michael Nairn.
The Fife Coastal Path passes through the ruins of Ardross Castle, between the two buildings, and so it is freely accessible.
At the roadside and in the grounds of Ardross Farm you will find a dovecot, it appears to be a modern building and has a skylight installed in the roof so clearly, the owner has found a new purpose for the dovecot.
Again only a hop, skip, and jump up the road from Ardross Farm is Newark Castle. You can get to the castle easily from the coastal path and the nearby bee-hive dovecot. But I was not on the coastal path. My way was fenced off and guarded by some cows, I am not sure the farmer would have taken kindly to me passing through the field so again long distant shots of the castle and dovecot.
The last time I walked the coastal path I did enter part of the ruin, or at le
ast the vaulted chamber below the castle proper. The castle probably dates from the 13th century, a time when Alexander 111 (1241-1286) was known to have spent some of his childhood there. However the current building did not come into being until the 15th century by the Kinloch family. In 1649 it was sold to David Leslie, a prominent figure in the English and Scottish Civil Wars, and was given the title Lord Newark. Following his death in 1682, the castle passed to the Anstruther family, and finally the Baird’s of Elie. Sir William Burrell (Glasgow shipping magnate, of the Burrell collection fame) wanted to buy the castle and restore it, plans were in place, drawn up by Sir Robert Lorimer, but Mr. Baird of Elie, refused to sell. It now along with the dovecot is a scheduled monument.
On now and into St Monans, I did not stop off at the harbour or the windmill not while things are the way they are. However if you get the chance visit the windmill just east of the village on the coastal path and climb up into the viewing room at the top for some magnificent view. Below the windmill are the Salt Pans. Salt was the third-largest export from Scotland after wool and fish. Salt pans were not only here but all along the north shore of Fife, mainly because of the abundance of cheap coal. The metal pans were flooded with salt water and fires burned underneath to evaporate the moisture, leaving behind the sea salt. The windmill above was used to pump seawater into the pans. There is little left of the house that would have covered the pans, and although the practise of boiling seawater for its salt content was known from the seventeen hundreds, the one we see at St Monans is dated from the eighteen hundreds.
Pittenweem is another town well worth a visit, and where you will find St Fillan’s Cave. St. Fillan was an Irish holy man, and it is said that God gave him a glowing left arm, so that he could read and write, in the dark cave with the light from his left glowing arm. There are all sorts of tales about the cave, having been used for smuggling. You can enter the cave but you will have to ask for a key at the local cafe, but again lockdown, so I pressed on to Anstruther and onto the B9131, and the ten (hilly) miles home.
It would have been good to have spend time in each of the little villages, and once the lock down is over I may try the same circuit again, for it is pleasant cycling on quite roads and no hills.
Such a beautiful day. I could have happily cycled on and on to the ends of the earth. It was the kind of day that could not be hurried, and the day that would determine distance, and direction of travel. Out to Strathkinness, and down through the dell to Pitscottie, sunlight slanted like spears through the latticework canopy of mature woodland striking the road ahead like points of polished steel. As the woodland gave way to a more sparse canopy the branches were silhouetted into beautiful, stunning patterns, bringing back fond memories of my trips to Paris where the intertwining branches of the plane trees would make similar patterns on pavements.
Dandelions have lost their heads,
No longer can be called “Pee the beds”.
Hawthorn hedges and trees were heavy with Mayflower. I believe it is known as a mass year, the strong scent from these snow-covered trees assaults your senses. And the Copper Beech shone like a burnished pot in the bright sunshine that flowed from an eggshell blue sky down upon it like a golden waterfall.
Even the stinging nettles today were at their best, reminiscent of when I visited Knoydart, a remote area on the west coast of Scotland. We were following a path that would have been taken by the carts that carried the barrels of Herring from boats that would have unloaded at Barrisdale and made their way over the Bealach (pass) and onto, what would have been the main road south, and the markets of Glasgow. It would have been a hard pull up and over the crest between the two high mountains, so extra ponies would have been used on the steepest parts and then when over the worst they would return to help the next wagon up.
It was winter and the days were short, and cold, but we were assured that there was a five-star bothy, about halfway across, where we could spend the night. It was the early hours of the morning when we entered what would have been a small village but every building we came to was less than a yard high, so we eventually put some old corrugated sheets over a corner in one of the abandoned ruined buildings and slept under that. Crawling out of my sleeping bag the next morning I found the five-star bothy only about 50 yards away. We must have walked right passed it, in the dark. My boots that had been splashing through bog and stream the day before, were now frozen solid. As we travelled on that day we passed many a home that had been abandoned (possibly during the clearances) but what was remarkable, in this wild and remote part of Scotland covered only in heather and grass, was that we found each and every ruinous building we came to had at its side, a neat square patch of nettles, easily three feet high, and black with frost. Each and every household must all have kept hens.
Then on up to Ceres, Cupar, and back down to Pitscottie for home. The roads were the busiest I have seen them for weeks, but it is OK, all the cars had stickers on their back windows to tell us that they were Tory Government Advisors.
The butterfly handlebars I had ordered from Amazon arrived a couple of days ago and having fitted them to the bike I took it for a spin to try them out.
I would normally ride a bike with a 21 to 22-inch frame and a 21 to 22-inch top tube, the one I have has a 19-inch top tube. This puts the rider in a much more upright position, almost a sit up and beg. Extending the top tube means a much flatter posture on the bike.
Setting up your bike, two things are important; saddle height, and the distance from the seat to the handlebars. Optimum saddle height is achieved by placing your heels (flat shoes) on the pedal and then turning the pedals backwards, your heel should just about start to lift from the pedal. HSS (high saddle syndrome) and LSS (low saddle syndrome) will cause knee problems. The other size that is important is the distance from the seat to handlebars. Ideally, this will be measured by placing your elbow in front of the saddle and stretching out your fingers, they should just graze where the handlebars fix to the steering head. When drop handlebars are fitted you have the option of sitting up with your hands on the top of the bar, with your hands over the brake/changer, or down on the bottom of the handlebars (cheating the wind). On mountain bikes this is seen as less important so the handlebars are straight. This is fine for control on rough ground but will be painful on the wrists after a while on the road, hands permanently in one position. This was the type of handlebars that came with the bike I am riding at the moment. Having mountain bike changers, I could not fit drop handlebars, but butterfly handlebars have become more popular; they are designed to take the mountain bike changers and still give the rider a variety of holds around the wings of the butterfly. The other advantage they have is that they are covered in a thick foam rather than bar tape so they absorb much of the road shock. Last, but by no means least, they extend (in a sense) the length of the top tube by around four inches, giving a much flatter riding position.
You really have to ride the bike to understand the difference it makes. As I came home along the straight out of Pitscottie I was able to simply rest my forearms across the bars (time trialing style), very relaxing. Really pleased that I made the change.
Today the wind was from the north so that is the direction I chose, it should give me a nice easy run home. I fought the wind all the way to St Michael then turned off onto the Tayport road. As soon as I did the wind disappeared, sheltered now with trees, the ridge and a hawthorn hedgerow now dressed in springtime leaves. Soon they will be covered in white, sweet-smelling flowers. The day was clear and bright, skies deep blue, with fluffy clouds setting near the horizon.
Tayport was quiet and I soon found myself down at the harbour, I peddled my way over to the Northside to see what boats were there. There seemed to be no hurry to have them back in the water. The majority of the boats here are fin keel, fine here in Tayport where the harbour never dries out but a bilge keelboat would be better around the harbours of Fife – every harbour on the north side of the Forth dries out.
I spotted a large Ketch, now there was something a bit special, a blue water sailor. I was already on board imagining myself taking her down to the Canaries in December. Catching the trade winds across to the Caribbean, to spend some time there before heading for the Panama Canal. The currents and wind now with you all the way to Fiji, Loyalty Island and Brisbane Australia. A course north and around the tip of Australia, into the Indian Ocean for the long haul north and west chased by the wind for Christmas Island and on to the Maldives. Socotra and into the Gulf of Aden, the Red Sea and the Suez Canal and into the Mediterranean. Two years later to arrive back at Tayport. Then again, after such an adventure why would you want to return?
Dreaming over it was time to head home. I decided to return by the forestry track to Morton Loch, this is where the first Mesolithic, hunter-gatherers were known to have settled around 8000 years ago. The first stone tools from this period were found here by a local archaeologist, one Reg Candow. Then in 1970 a team from The University of Cambridge excavated the site and found good evidence of a settlement here. Today the sea lies about four kilometres to the east, but 8000 years ago this was the seashore. The site was probably an island cut off by the sea at high tide. We know they had boats for in their midden Cod bones were found in great numbers and could have only been caught out at sea.
Back onto the forestry track, which was in much better shape than many of the roads around here. A harvester had been thinning trees and stacking them along the side of the road for collection, the smell of newly cut pine filled the air all the way to the minor unclassified road that would now take me into Leuchars. Once out onto the A919 for Guardbridge I was flying along. I did not bother to go onto the cycle path, the roads being as quiet as they are I took the A91 all the way into St Andrews.
For a day that had not been planned it had turned into a very pleasant ride. The bike is doing well, it seems to have loosened up a little and feels much freer to ride. Then again maybe I am just getting better at riding it.
The last day of April dawned. I needed milk and bread so popped out early to avoid having to queue to get into Tesco. Above the empty St Andrews streets, the black skies look down and weep.
Breakfast over I decided that the trip down and along the coast was not on for today, but what had taken my interest over the last few days were dovecotes. Dovecotes were originally built by lairds to provide secure accommodation for flocks of rock doves. The dovecotes, or in Scotland, doocot’s purpose was to provide estates with a delicacy for the table, but of course only for the laird’s table. Rock doves were prolific, needed little space, living in nesting boxes that lined the inside walls of the dovecot. Even the guano made excellent fertiliser and they foraged for their own food, mainly the tenant farmer’s crops, – some of these doocots housed upwards of 2,000 birds so did not endear them to the tenant farmer, often causing friction when the freshly-sow seed was eaten. Dovecotes increasingly fell out of fashion during the 1700s, largely because of the problems created for the community when the birds decimated crops.
However, many continued to be built for purely decorative reasons well into the 19th Century, seen as a status symbol and possibly why so many are still with us, There is a fine example of one such dovecot in the grounds of Glamis Castle. As ever there was this old wives tale that demolishing a dovecote brought bad luck to the household.
We know the Romans kept pigeons, (sometimes used for a sacrificial offering to their gods) but it was the Normans who introduced doocots to Scotland in the 12th and 13th centuries. Today, Fife has the largest number, with East Lothian a close second. It has been claimed there were 360 doocots in Fife during the 18th century and 106 examples exist today and form an important part of Scotland’s rich heritage, but since they are difficult to put to any other use it begs the question “For how much longer?”
I decided to visit an A listed dovecote near here, once the doocot for Leuchars Castle. The wind was slack when I set out and since my trip to Leuchars and back was around 10 miles in total I decided to dial up my cadence to jig-time and went beadling off along the cycle track for Guardbridge. As I left Guardbridge behind a wind rose out of nowhere and tore at the skies sending the clouds scurrying off up the Fife coast. I had been to the site of the castle and dovecote last summer but the field was planted with barley then so I could not get close to the structure, situated as it is in the middle of the farmers’ field. This time I was lucky, the field was being used to grow silage or hay.
Now canvas deck shoes are brilliant on a yacht’s deck and make a good pair of cycling shoes too, but they have their limitations and walking across a field of foot-high grass, wet through with overnight rain, is not one of their attributes. By the time I had reached my destination they were waterlogged, still, I had my pictures. The building was seriously in need of restoration, with large cracks running from foundation to roofline in both the front and rear. Large steel bands have been placed around the structure to preserve it from further damage until funds can be found for its reconstruction. The cost of repair will be high, although possibly not as high as the surveys and technical reports that will be required before the National Lottery pays up.
Whilst here I snapped a couple of photographs of Leuchars Castle (Motte). The best way to see the Motte is to go to the roundabout and down the side of the hotel that leads you along the old railway embankment. You can’t get to the castle from here but it is clearly visible only a hundred yards or so into the adjacent field. The site consists of a man-made oval, flat-topped mound, about 80 metres long by 50 metres wide and standing 8 metres high. Originally it was topped by a mediaeval wooden tower dating to the 12 century and would have been the work of one of the Norman lords, who were given lands in Scotland by King David 1. Later the wooden structure was replaced by a stone castle itself demolished in the 18th century.
Homeward bound and into a crosswind all the way to Guardbridge, the smoke from the chimney at Eden Mill was never going to be given the chance to rise, it was torn from the stack almost as soon as it broke free. The smoke signals were clear to read, headwinds all the way home, ho-hum. Knowing it would be a short day I was able to push hard all the way there and back, very exhilarating.
The morning was overcast and the wind out of the east and bitter cold. I pedalled my way to St Andrew’s castle at the end of the Scores for the start of my journey. My first digital camera was a great little camera. Simply point it in the right direction and press the button and it would produce brilliant pictures every time. Sadly when the battery would no longer hold its charge I found it impossible to get a replacement. Looking for a new camera was a nightmare; there are so many out there and the jargon that comes with such cameras is way above my pay grade. I did see one, that rather than charge up the internal battery, you could replace the two AA batteries when they were depleted. This would be better for traveling abroad, no need to recharge at the mains. Camera at the ready and as I snapped away, up popped a message to tell me that the batteries were depleted, ho-hum back to the house for new batteries and add two spares to an already overloaded courier bag. Must get myself a pannier bag.
There is so much written about St Andrews Castle that little needs to be repeated here. It was built around 1200 in Bishop Rodger’s time as his residence. Totally destroyed in the Wars of Independence in the fourteenth century it was rebuilt by Bishop Walter Trail (1385 – 1401). Archbishop James Beaton (1521 – 1539) modified the castle to make it more suitable for artillery defense, adding two circular gun towers, known as block-houses. Further additions were made by his nephew Cardinal David Beaton (1537-1546) at the time of his murder. The siege that followed the young Beaton’s murder was to have far-reaching consequences for the castle.
The Earl of Arran, Governor of Scotland, attempted to break into the castle by a mine, which was eventually intercepted by a countermine; both of these can be seen today. Eventually, the castle was taken as the result of a French artillery bombardment in 1547, which largely destroyed archbishop Beaton’s block-houses. After the siege, the last archbishop before the Reformation, John Hamilton (1546-1571) repaired the castle. His greatest effort was on the entrance front, which he reconstructed in a progressive French Renaissance style, with elaborate dormer windows – a good idea on the continent, but not so much in seaward-facing St. Andrews.
Next port of call, Dairsie Castle, that sits just above the River Eden. With a tailwind out of St Andrews, it was an easy pedal to the top of Knock Hill then a fast descent into the valley below (the computer recorded 31.8 mph)- the man knows no fear. Then a short sharp climb up to the castle. For much of its life it was the property of the Bishop of St Andrews. Until I returned to Fife I had only known it as a ruin but in 1993 an excavation had taken place, the expense born by the Fife Regional Council, that turned up a lot of information on its past. The castle was rebuilt and it certainly is a fine looking building today but I have little knowledge of who now owns the castle, however, it does look much more like a dwelling than a fortification.
Close by is the little church of Dairsie. No longer used for public worship, it is now owned by the St Andrews Preservation Trust. The church was built at a time when Scotland was going through a Protestant phase, although there has been a church on this site from as early as 1160. It was Archbishop John Spottiswood of St Andrews that commissioned the building of the church we now see today, more in keeping with the reformed episcopalian worship. It is a stunning building and although a simple buttressed rectangle, it is lifted by the ornamentation of its windows, echoes of medieval church windows, and an impressive bell tower. The church has also been given a classical entrance. War Graves from the Second World War are to be found within the cemetery. A church worthy of a visit.
Even the climb up onto the A91 into Cupar was a breeze today because the wind was at my back, then the long descent into Cupar. The road was a little busier today, I met a pair of cyclists coming up the hill out of Cupar, they seemed to be making heavy weather of it.
Into Cupar that once had a fine castle but nothing remains of it now. The castle that did stand here, was built by the Earl of Fife in the 11th century. King Alexander 111’s wife Margaret died at the castle on 26 February 1275.
After the castle was surrendered to the English in 1296, King Edward the 1 of England stayed at the castle. In 1306, Scottish forces led by Robert Wishart attacked the English garrison at the castle and besieged it. Wishart was captured by the English at Cupar.
In 1308 the Warden of Cupar Castle, Sir Thomas Grey was ambushed on his way back from Edwards 11’s coronation by a follower of Robert the Bruce called Walter de Bickerton. Although heavily outnumbered, Thomas routed Bickerton’s men through the use of cavalry charges and by deceiving his enemy that they were greater in number than they really were.
In May 1336 English forces, led by John de Strivelyn, relieved the English forces occupying the castle after driving away the Scottish forces, led by Sir Andrew Murray, that were besieging the castle. The castle was surrendered by the English constable Sir William Bullock in 1339.
The court of the Stewart of Fife sat at the castle until 1425.
I passed Kilmaron Castle (ruin). Kilmaron lies about 2 miles outside Cupar but was not really a castle in the true sense of the word, since it was a manor house built in 1820 to the designs of James Gillespie Graham (1776 – 1855) for the Dundee textile manufacturer Sir David Baxter (1793 – 1872). since it is in the middle of a farmers land and although I passed within yards of it, I give it a miss.
Cupar was quiet and I moved fast up through the town and turned off onto the A913 and started my long climb up to Kilmaron Farm. The road was pretty sheltered so I never saw the computer drop below 9 mph, which I felt was good considering the hill. The unclassified road marked Moonzie, is only a few yards further on and as soon as I turned off onto this road the crosswind hit me, the homeward journey was going to be hard work. On reaching Lordscairnie Castle there was a big notice on the field gate to tell me it was private land and not to enter. What? After coming all this way? You must be joking!
Lordscairnie Castle, an L-shaped tower-house was one of the castles of the Lindsay Earls of Crawford, and was in their possession by the mid-fourteenth century. It is most likely the fifth earl who built such a fine castle as this was in its day. He was far less picturesque than his predecessor the fourth earl (Beardie) that history was rather fond of, and supposedly one of the ghosts who haunt Glamis Castle.
Lordscairnie was entered at the base of the stair tower, and the doorway was afforded protection by what is known as a machicolation at the wall-head; that is a projection through which missiles (or boiling oil) could be dropped on unwelcome guests. The original building had five stories including an attic. The rooms (all but the great hall) were large enough to be subdivided by a party wall. The castle was originally enclosed by a courtyard wall, but of this, only the single round tower of a gatehouse remains.
The long climb out of Cupar into a biting headwind saw the computer drop below double figures for the second time today and it did not really recover all the way back into St Andrews. Strangely enough, I met up with the two cyclists that I had seen struggling out of Cupar, they were now breezing along the cycle track and I was the one making heavy weather of it. We exchanged greetings. All in all a good ride.
After reading ‘the wee castle tour’ a friend sent me this e-mail. My memories, as a small boy going off camping with dad to the berries fields of Fife, the berries picking, during the fair fortnight, I seem to remember through much more colourful spectacles, Then again the lad is now in his nineties, so was possibly talking of a time before the war when things were no good, much unemployment in Scotland.
Walter. Thanks for the memories and the interesting photos, the castle at Dairsie is owned by a syndicate and closed to nonmembers. If you are on the main road Leuchars to Cupar passing through Dairsie there’s an Inn on the left, turning left passed the inn, the road leads towards the river. Many moons ago dad and I camped near the river (source of drinking water) along with a friend of dads, John Mac Phial and his family, no facilities were provided. We were there to pick raspberries all for much-needed money. 8.0-5 0 each day sall meal cooked by dad on an open fire. Midweek dad left the field early (farmer not happy) I had to stay in the field picking, dad walked into Cupar and back for bread, sausages, and tatties. We picked berries for a week, every penny made was a prisoner. On Friday, we were due to return home, dad filled a lugy, (small pail) with the best berries and sealed the top. We sneaked in passed the grieve man to the tent, where it was hidden in dad’s kit bag till we cleared the farm field. To save money we walked into Cupar to catch a bus for home. Back home mum turned the berries into raspberry jam, the homemade jam lasted a long time through the winter months.
Santiago lies in the Province of Galicia in Northern Spain,the name a shortened version of Santo Iago, or in English, Saint James. The disciple, James the Greater of Biblical fame, later to become Spain’s Patron Saint arrived in Spain as an evangelist, and his bones are now believed to be in a casket housed under the Cathedral’s altar in Santiago, brought from Palestine by his followers after he was executed by Herod. The word, Compostela, translated as ‘field of the stars’ refers to the legend from the 1X Century that a star indicated the point where his remains were to be discovered, the present-day site of the cathedral.
In the middle ages, when Jerusalem was besieged and impossible to visit and Rome, just as difficult, Santiago de Compostela became the leading destination for Christian pilgrims. It would have been a long and difficult journey at that time, across this mountainous region of Spain. Pilgrims would have to deal with wild animals, robbers, sickness and injury, and for that reason, Pilgrim Refuges sprang up across the country. Many are still in use today. The Cathedral of Santiago would witness thousands of unwashed pilgrims who had journeyed for weeks without a change of clothing on their long treks to visit the tomb of Saint James. Enter the giant incense burner known as a Botufumeiro and principally used to try to mask the smell of a church full of unwashed bodies.
There is not one but many pilgrim routes from all over Europe and the one rising in popularity is the Camino Frances and the Camino del Norte sometimes called Camino de la Costa. As the name suggests this route follows the coast along the French border at Irun before turning inland at Ribadeo or thereabouts to reach Arzua and the main route into Santiago.
There is now a chain of pilgrim refuges along the coast; where else would you get the chance to sleep in a monastery? The scenery is superb, it is not too hot for pleasant cycling, there are plenty of interesting towns and architecture and because so many new motorways have recently been built in the north of Spain, there are miles and miles of superb roads with hardly a soul on them.
I first did the Compostela de Santiago back in 2007 not long after my mother died and my caring duties were over. It is a journey I would like to repeat one more time if I can and if I have a little more time left. The following is my account of my first journey.
The idea to cycle the Compostela de Santiago had come about after watching a documentary on television about a long distance pilgrimage across northern Spain. I decided this was a trip I must go on. To qualify the pilgrim must complete at least the last 200 kilometers into Santiago, on foot, on horseback, or cycling. Furthermore, the Pilgrim’s record card must be stamped with the sello, a rubber stamp, obtained at monasteries, churches or refuges along the way. It was also significant that a member of my cycling club, Eric Walker, was a leading light in the Confraternity of Saint James, and a great help in the preparations for my trip.
"But those who trust in the LORD will find new strengthThey will soar high on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint." Isaiah 40:31
How many times will that verse have been recited, at the start of a journey such as this? A thousand, possibly hundreds of thousands of times down through the ages.
In the early days of May, my tickets arrived from the European Express, along with departure dates and labels for my luggage. For the first time it all started to feel real, I was going off to Spain. The next weeks saw me charging around bike, clothes and chemist shops purchasing everything from a soap dish to puncture repair outfits and an ever-growing pile of stuff started to appear on my living room carpet. All this would have to find a home in two greedy pannier bags on the rear carrier of my bike. Everything was now ready, bike serviced, panniers bags packed and packed again. I did intend weighing myself, then the bike, but decided against this idea, the shock may have been too much.
I had to be at the European-Express pickup point in Bramham by 07.45. Not wishing to be late I did several dry runs and calculated it would take me around two hours from my house to Bramham. What if I have a puncture? Yes, maybe I should add half an hour for unexpected breakdowns or punctures, headwinds, well yes, better add another half an hour for headwinds and half an hour for tailwinds. It seemed unfair to leave out tailwinds since they are such helpful friendly souls.
At the Club run to Otley CC on the Wednesday before my departure date, Eric asked how the preparation had gone and I had to admit my concerns about reaching Bramham on time.
“Why don’t you take the van?” he asked.
“I was not all that keen on leaving it sitting out at Bramham for over two weeks,” I told him.
“If you don’t mind me driving your van, I could come with you and drive it home, then simply drop the keys through your letterbox.”
I could have kissed him, well maybe not.
The Journey Over
The large double-decker coach pulling an equally large bike trailer arrived in good time and quickly and efficiently my bike was on board, (the coach will take any size of bike, tandem, tricycle even tandem tricycles without them having to be dismantled in any way). The coach was extremely comfortable and squeaky clean. By the time we arrived at Dover, I had made new friends and all were excited about their planned trips. I, however, was the only person on the Compostela de Santiago; do they know something I don’t?
The European Express dropped me off in Bayonne (just inside France near to the Spanish border). I traveled on the D 932 to St Jean–Pied–de–Port the official start of the Composite, and a small town nestling in the foothills of the Pyrenees on the French side of the border. I found my first refuge at the top of a very steep narrow street, and close to the castle. It was around noon and all the staff were seated at lunch when I arrived and kindly invited me to join them. Would I be staying there tonight they asked? It seemed absurd to me that I should stop in the middle of the day with lots of daylight in front of me. After my Pilgrim’s record card was stamped and I said my goodbyes I wobbled off down the hill once more. What was in that wine? I only had one glass full.
After a long coach trip and riding in the hot sun into St Jean-Pier -de-Port I really should have stayed at the refuge there, inexperience really. I paid for it on the climb into the Parageneses. The route was simple enough to follow the D135 upwards. The heat was like a baker’s oven in the gorge as I climbed the twisting road ever upwards; not a breath of wind to comfort burning lungs. After some 30 kilometers from St. Jean Pier de Port I finally came to the top, at 1087 meters above sea level. What amused me was the notice by the side of the road, which read Attention – Horizontal. The only thing that was likely to be horizontal was me lying at the side of it gasping for breath, this heat was going to take some getting used to. I had now crossed The Pyrenees into Spain and was feeling fine, the heat of the day now subsided, a respite for the unaccustomed and after many long hours’ I cycled into the square of the small town of Espinal. Outside the café were a few tables and chairs, I chose one making it possible to eat and watch my belongings at the same time. When the waiter arrived I ordered something, I had no idea what dish I had just ordered, neither I suspect, did the non-English speaking waiter. I found a campsite and gladly booked myself in, maybe I should have stopped at the refuge but I had been told priority would be given to walkers so decided on camping.
The route was simple enough to follow the D135 upwards. The heat was like a baker’s oven in the gorge as I climbed the twisting road ever upwards; not a breath of wind to comfort burning lungs. After some 30 kilometers from St. Jean Pier de Port I finally came to the top, at 1087 meters above sea level. What amused me was the notice by the side of the road, which read Attention – Horizontal. The only thing that was likely to be horizontal was me lying at the side of it gasping for breath, this heat was going to take some getting used to. I had now crossed The Pyrenees into Spain and was feeling fine, the heat of the day now subsided, a respite for the unaccustomed and after many long hours’ I cycled into the square of the small town of Espinal. Outside the café were a few tables and chairs, I chose one making it possible to eat and watch my belongings at the same time. When the waiter arrived I ordered something, I had no idea what dish I had just ordered, neither I suspect, did the non-English speaking waiter. I found a campsite and gladly booked myself in, maybe I should have stopped at the refuge but I had been told priority would be given to walkers so decided on camping.
Estella Lizarra was to be my refuge for the night and I estimated to be there around 1pm. It had been suggested that I take the minor road the NA172 rather than follow the N135 and skirt around Pamplona before joining the N111 (the new number for the N135) all the way into Estella Lizarra. Somehow I managed to get lost and ended up climbing some of the steepest hills in the area between Erro and Agorreta and ended up where I did not wish to be, in the middle of Pamplona. I was given a map by the girl in the travel agent in Pamplona and managed to find my way back onto a minor road that took me into Urroz then onto Eunate and onto the N111 for Estella Lizarra. It had been a terrible – hot – mountainous – and frustrating part of my journey and it was 21.30hrs by the time I finally pulled up at the refuge in Estella hot and despondent. This was my first experience of refuge having camped up until this point. The staff made up of a Dutchman and two lads from Belgium took pity on me, since the building was in almost total darkness, as everyone was already in bed or by now preparing for bed. I was shown the bike store, where to shower and a bunk bed pointed out to me for the night. I was instructed to join them in the dining room after I had showered, where a meal would be prepared. The meal turned out to be everything leftover from an earlier dinner reheated. Macaroni and cheese, then sausages and salad this was followed by cabbage and French bean soup. Boy, what a feast for a starving cyclist.
Next morning around 0500hrs I was awakened to a rousing choir of male voices. I turned to the person in the bed next to me, bunk beds were pushed together in sets of four to save space and your sleeping companion was only a matter of a foot or so from you. The he I had expected to find was, in fact, a she, oh well when in Rome; she had no idea what they were singing either. At breakfast, I found myself alongside a mother and daughter from Australia.
“You’re from Australia” I said,
“And you’re from Scotland,” she suggested. We talked through mouthfuls of hard toast like slices layered thick with margarine and runny jam washed down with mugs full of tea or coffee. The song I had thought was a Comino song was in fact a Basque song since we were now deep in Basque country. This piece of information came from the mother since she had already completed the Compostela once before and had been invited along on this one by her daughter, on her first Compostela. Unfortunately, the young maiden had caught the eye of a rather handsome Dutchman and they wished to go off together and meet up with her mother later on in the day. Mother felt inclined to say yes but it was clear that she was not all that happy at being left on her own. Surprisingly, or maybe not so surprising, a large percentage of those doing the Compostela are in fact women and around 75% of those are single girls alone or in small groups. Most walk around 25 kilometers a day, carrying oversized and overweight haversacks, with little effort.
Leaving the refuge at around six o’clock it was just getting light. The digital clock at the side of the road told me it was already 25 degrees in the shade. I made a mental note to stay out of the shade and pressed on to Najera for the night. I was really getting into a rhythm now and the loaded bike seemed so natural that I could happily trundle along at 10-mph with little effort and put in my120 kilometers a day by around noon. This I calculated would have me back in Bayonne in time to catch the bus home. Miss it and it would be another fortnight before the next one.
It was Sunday when I arrived in Burgos, around midday, a very large city indeed with a most beautiful cathedral. The refuge at Burgos was set in the middle of a park, on the grounds of the old military hospital. Wooden huts set out in a rectangle amongst trees, I have no idea what type of trees they were however they had white down like seeds, which fell like snow onto the dry grass. A fire had started and rapidly spread through the park. I sat at a table outside the refuge eating lunch, my floor-show a troop of firemen beating out the small fires that seemed to spring up almost as soon as they had been extinguished.
After lunch I set off into the city and found a fiesta in full swing. In the park surrounding the square children who had just attended their first communion were dressed up to the nines. Girls like young brides and boys in a form of military uniform covered in gold braid. Doting mothers, fathers and uncles were blissfully photographing the children in front of every conceivable fountain and flower bed. The girls happy enough to undergo all the attention lavished upon them, the boys less so and it showed on their faces.
It was a great day for sightseeing since the plaza was full of traders dressed up in medieval dress selling mostly craft goods. There was a baker, cooking these rather flatbread rolls with a sauce inside. The oven he had was made from clay and straw, fired by wood. I bought one cooked in seconds in this furnace, so hot, almost too hot to hold, however, it tasted superb. The crowning moment for me, however, was walking around the corner to be greeted by a long avenue of plane trees with their branches intertwining with each other to form an arch along the broad pavement. In their shade, people sat around outside the cafés. Why was it so special? I had seen that same scene as a boy. My Primary teacher had a painting on the wall of her classroom, it was the same picture, only this was in real-time. I now felt like Mary Poppins, when she and the children had jumped into the picture on the pavement. I was now inside that painting. I had to savour the moment so I sat down at one of the tables and ordered a glass of wine.
The next day I was buzzing around making porridge when this rather well turned out elderly lady came forward and peered into my cooking pot.
“Oh how lovely!” she exclaimed, “Porridge. My husband is from Scotland and makes us porridge every morning, how I do love my porridge”
When I answered, of course, she realized that I was, in fact, Scottish, and went off to tell her husband. Soon I was blessed with the company of an elderly man with a most welcoming wry smile.
“I hope you don’t intend to eat all of that on your own?” he said by way of introduction.
I scooped about half the contents of my pot into a bowl and pushed it towards him. We chatted and ate, and he told me how his daughter had married an Italian and moved to Italy.
“We seemed to be spending more and more time traveling backward and forwards to see them then later on the grandchildren. Our home in Scotland was becoming a liability so we finally sold up and moved to Italy, now the children and grandchildren visit us. It was the best move we ever made”.
It became plainly obvious to me at that moment that Scotland was not a place on a map or a place where a piece of coloured cloth flew from a flagpole. Scotland was in us, those who were Scottish, it was in our genes. Here in this small part of what they call Spain was Scotland. I will never meet him again but every time I think of Burgos I see the face of that old Scotsman with his wry smile.
“Thanks for the porridge” he said as he made to leave, “Just like mother used to make”, and after the perfectly timed pause, as if he was kindling up memories of his reverent old mother stirring the porridge with her spirtal, he said,
“The woman was a terrible cook”.
The joke was as old as he was but his timing was immaculate and I had to laugh.
The N120 took me over to Sahagun then on to the LE232 north to Cea and a minor road west again to St Miguel De Escalada and into Leon, where I stayed the night in a nunnery. It was a beautiful city and my new German friend and I visited the cathedral there. From there it was back on the N120 most of the way into Astorga and then on to the NV1 into Ponferradaand onto Leon. From there it is a hop-skip-and a jump along the N547 into Santiago de Compostela itself.
The journey back to Bayonne followed the coast along the north coast of Spain, I thought it would be flattish, being near the sea, but I was wrong. I did made it back into Bayonne with a day to spare though – this is a beautiful city and the coast has miles and miles of pristine sandy beaches, (and lots of daft laddies riding mopeds one-handed carrying a surfboard in the other, and crash helmets pushed up – the front now on top of their head, – must give them some sort of street cred).
I could go on forever about my trip and of course, it was my trip and will be very different for everyone who takes it on. You will never be alone on a trip such as this; the road to Santiago is a well-trodden path and you will all too soon find yourself in the company of like-minded people, whether you desire it or not. However, be warned, you will not go on the Compostela and return the same person.
I shall always remember the two girls that I met, one crying by the side of the road and carrying her rucksack on my back to the next refuge. The hippies that lived high up in the Sierra de Ancares Mountains in a wigwam. Chatting with two girls from Holland, in the next bunk to me, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. I never once heard a cross word in all of the time I was away. There were no papers, television, or radio, it was an isolated world, yet open to the world. I met people from South America, Australia, Holland, Germany, France from just about every corner of the globe, all living in harmony, (there must have been no politicians amongst them). There were no cooking facilities in the refuge at Leon, possibly something to do with insurance since it was a very old convent run by nuns (and no hot water not even in the showers). There was a kitchen but no stove however there were lots of large pots, so I cooked up a sort of stew from tins of meatballs, packets of soup and fresh vegetables on my camping stove. Scooping out a bowlful for myself I passed it around the table to be eaten along with loaves of French bread. A Canadian lad had made a fresh fruit salad, dressed with yogurt, for us. Ulrich Kraussel from Germany managed two bottles of wine. However one of the most unforgettable memories for me came on my last night in a refuge. A group of German Girls who had been traveling together, whether part of a group at home or not, I never found out, but they sang a German lullaby that night just at lights out. Dropping off to sleep I could almost see the Austrian Alps with snow-covered peaks. You ask me what is the Compostela de Santiago and for you, I have no answer, for it is different for everyone who goes on this life-changing experience.
Thursday’s headwind had abated, but it was still there, and very very cold. Having struggled to recover from yesterday’s ride I decided to change my route and headed for Guardbridge on the cycle track and then over to Balmullo onto the A914 for Dairsie of Osnaburgh. At the roundabout, I turned left onto the A19 for Clayton, rejoining the cycle track at Guardbridge once more. It was a pleasant change and most enjoyable; a leisure cycle, free from hills and around 20 miles. My top speed today was 18.8 mph and my average over the course was 10.4 mph.
Generally, the CTC will do a ride out at the weekend; the distance, normally in the region of 40 – 50 miles. Our cycle club would have a test ride out each spring to knock us into shape, 100 miles was normal. Audax rides will start at 200 kilometers (120 miles) and that distance has to be covered in a time limit. Under normal circumstances, 20 miles would not even be worthy of a mention. However, my story is all about coming back into cycling after a long lay off and no longer in the prime of life, you have to take baby steps. Keeping yourself fit is the hardest thing to learn, for we are all built differently.
I had been cycling for many years and considered myself a good club rider. I decided to join Audax UK and my first Audax ride was up around Nidderdale. Not flat, but I had no problems at all, a little dehydrated possibly but I had always found it difficult taking on water, and at that time had no idea about what food worked for me. I had a few 200K Audax rides under my belt when I decided to move up to 300k.
I remember it was a beautiful summer’s day. We set off from Newcastle and headed north out into the countryside, crossing the border into Scotland for a few miles then returning back towards Newcastle. About 25 miles from the finish in Newcastle we stopped at a cafe. I could not eat anything but felt I should get some liquid into me so I ordered tea, and when it arrived I put sugar in, although I have not taken sugar in tea since childhood. Hardly had it reached my stomach, when I found myself flying from the cafe and all the contents of my stomach came up in a fountain. I could not hold anything down, even my emergency rations, Jelly Babies. Somehow I managed to get back to the van at Newcastle, out of time to qualify for a finish, but by that time I couldn’t have cared less. I curled up in the passenger seat of the van and pulled a blanket over myself and slept for a couple of hours before heading for home. Mum would be expecting me at around 8 am. When she saw me she was clearly shocked. I said I was fine. A shower and a couple of hours in bed and I would be right as rain.
“No,” she insisted,” I’m calling the doctor for an appointment,” and when mum insisted it was better just to do what you were told.
Being Sunday it was an emergency doctor’s appointment. Turned out that the doctor I visited that day just happened to have been the doctor for the British Olympic Team, (sometimes things happen for a reason). He was brilliant at putting me right about taking fluid on board, and telling me how I must eat small quantities of food for the duration of the run. What he also said was that this was a reaction to my body literally eating itself. I still found it difficult to drink lots and lots of water when cycling so supplemented this with sports energy drinks and from then on carried half a dozen small energy bars in the rear pocket of my cycle top. My favourite turned out to be banana flavoured. I bought that one by the boxful. I never had any problems from then on in, thanks to mum, and that very special doctor.
Strange as it may seem I heard a lady on the car radio one day talking about the making of the stage show Billy. A boy from a mining family who wanted to be a ballet dancer, the story was set in Yorkshire, during the miner’s strike. She said they had around five boys to play the part of Billy, and they had them bouncing around for hours and often they would spew up like fountains.
When I was on the Compostela de Santiago, I came across two Dutch girls by the side of the road. One was sitting down, the other was most unhappy that her friend would not get up. I stopped and asked if I could help.
“She won’t walk,” the standing girl said.
“I can’t walk, I have blisters” the other retorted.
I knew immediately that the girl on the ground was dehydrated and simply spent, the blisters were not the real reason for her not wishing to go on. I went over to my bike and came back with two energy bars and a sports drink. I handed them to the girl who set about them without question. I offered to take her backpack to the next refuge for her.
“The refuge is only 5 kilometers away,” I told them, “Without the backpack, you will make it”.
“Take it, take it”, her friend said, without hesitation.
However the lass was not keen to see all of her belongings go riding off, but in the end, she took her passport and money from the backpack and handed it over. I knew instantly why she was having difficulty when I tried to lift the pack, it must have weighed around 60 – 70lbs!
When I reached the refuge I told the staff there what had happened and said the girls would be in later. When they finally did make an appearance the staff went into overdrive. They had the girl in a bunk, her blisters were attended to, and food was prepared for them. Six o’clock the following morning I saw them bounce out the door without a care in the world. I wished them well and reminded them to drink lots of water.
Well the Coronavirus pandemic has well and truly put a spoke in the wheel of my big adventure any time soon. However, always the optimist, I have started training anyway. That way I will be fit and ready whenever things settle down again. If nothing else it gets me out in the fresh air and exercising (while I can) and I enjoy it, there can be no better reason than that.
Last week the weather was so springlike I pedalled all the way to Tayport. I had overstretched myself for by the time I returned to Leuchars I was struggling. I still had not learned to pace myself. At Guardbridge I dismounted at the barrier and pushed the bike up the slight hill and into the car park at the top before remounting, using different muscles helped. The wind was light but now like a gentle hand on my back propelled me into St Andrews. I stuffed the bike in the back of the van and headed for the shower, allowing hot water to massage my body. My batteries were flat, lungs burned, my stomach was cramping and I had a thirst that could not be quenched, but I also had a brain that was sparking at one hundred miles per second. I thought I was too old and my fitness levels such that I could never feel this way again; that heightened awareness that comes through sheer exertion. I can only imagine how professional athletes must be on a permanent high, that keeps them pushing forward, above and beyond the call of duty.
When Generals returned to Rome, in triumph, their servant would whisper in their ear
“You are not a god”.
I must find a small voice to sit upon my shoulder and whisper,
“You are now 78 years old”.
On Friday I set out for Strathkinness, a slow climb from St Andrews that gets you warmed up. From there I intended dropping back down to Guardbridge and home along the cycle path, just a short circuit to keep the legs flexible. But as always happens I was feeling good on reaching Strathkinness and decided to visit the Broch at Drumcarrow Craig. Crossing the B939 you start to climb, a climb that only gets steeper as you go, and soon I was twiddling away in my bottom granny gear. There is a little metalled road that takes you up to the Craig, and as I neared I could hear the sound of off-road motorcycles. I left the bicycle at the base of the crag and made the short climb up to the top.
The view was spectacular, you could see all the way to the Forth, the Tay and all the way west, across Fife. The Broch itself is long gone but the outer foundation ring of stones is still there (I stepped them out at about 13 feet in diameter) and clear for all to see and much bigger than expected. Even the entrance is visible. Seems they knew what they were doing, the people that built this Broch, for the door is away from the prevailing winds that come from the south-west. I must try to find out more about the (Iron Age) people who built this structure, from its size they must have been a large tribe. As with all these relics from the past the stone was re-used to build or extend farmhouses and barns. It makes sense. Why would you quarry stone when it is already there in a handy pile? But that is for another day, this was only a scouting trip.
Dropping back down to the B939 from Drumcarrow Craig, was a big Weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee, all the way home. It is times like this I am thankful I don’t have a computer on the bike, heart attack territory. I remember coming home from a trip, I had climbed up from Braemar and was now coming off the hill at the ski slope heading for Bridge of Cally. I was going so fast I dare not touch my brakes – at home the computer registered 53 MPH – a bit quick for an unstable tricycle loaded with gear. Best not to know these things at the time!
Now in my 78th year and having been off a bike for the last five of those years, I was becoming a couch potato and having real problems with sciatica in my lower back and left leg. I went to Kingdom Chiropractic Clinic in St Andrews to see if Dr. Francis Kelly, could help. He could, it was like magic. I decided if I wanted to remain feeling good then I needed to get myself a bit fitter and the only real exercise I loved was cycling.
I needed a plan and a purpose.
We will be leaving the EU at the end of 2020, so it will no longer be so easy to simply go off to Europe after that, and I wanted to do one last trip there. I could not afford to go into hotels or B&B every night, and camp sites have become almost as expensive as YH (youth hostels) which themselves have become very noisy, (or maybe I am just too old for youth hostelling now).
When I had visited Europe in the past it was always cycling through, never really spending much more that a day in any one place. This time I wanted to enjoy some of the places I had visited and spend enough time there to soak up the ambiance and enjoy the culture. This time it would be months rather than weeks away.
I decided to purchase a small van. The plan is to kit it out with a camp bed and my camping gear and this would be my home-from-home for the duration of my Odyssey. Although I am taking the van I intend this only to be a base camp for my cycling around a given area. Once I had exhausted that area, I would move on to pastures new, and repeat the process.
The places I really wished to re-visit would be the Loire Valley, Gorges De L’Ardèche, Paris, and Denmark but to see so much more of them this time around. There is one place I have always wanted to visit but never have and that is Stockholm, this time I will. Ever since I watched ‘The Bridge’ that fabulous detective series on television, that bridge has been on my bucket list.
You might well ask why I would consider doing this at this stage in my life, and the smart arse answer would be ‘because it’s there’. However, there are, on reflection, deeper reasons:
As a child I had a dark secret, I never learnt to read, with any confidence. Later in life I would find out that I was dyslexic. It was an embarrassment to me, that continued into adulthood for there seemed to be no answer to my problem. My defense mechanism was my mask that I showed to the world and if anyone got too close, I pushed them away, or simply moved on. All of my relationships were with people that were more scared of commitment than I. Most of my life I have been a loner, but never lonely, for I have an inquiring mind, always on the hunt for new adventures. In the movie “Knight and Day” comes this line:
“Sometimes things happen for a reason”.
Call it fate, call it what you will but when I was entering my 50s, by default, I learned to touch-type, I was now able for the first time in my life to communicate. Putting down my stories opened up a new world for me, and as I typed the words that appeared on the pages they started to make sense, I was reading. To improve my skills I started a journal, writing something each and every day. Oh I will never be an academic but the joy that came into my life will never be surpassed. I am a great believer in :
‘When life seems dark, simply hold fast, until the sun comes out,’ it always does. And when all your endeavors come to nought, it is simply spilled milk, move on.
Life is much the same for man and chimpanzee – a one-way ticket and no guarantee. I have been blessed with good health, and a natural fitness, throughout my life. I have never wished to be rich, and never envied those who are. Dad always used to say “If you can’t afford it, why would you want it?” It made sense to me.
I spend a lot of time in my boyhood with my father. Asking him questions was strange for he never came out with a straight answer and if I moaned about something, normally insignificant, he would say, “Aye life’s lumpy, son”. One day I asked what he meant by that and he told me, “As you go through life, you will find it full of lumps, some should concern you, others are simply irritants.”
I was none the wiser until years later I came to know what he meant. A lump in your throat, a lump in your porridge, a lump on your breast, are all lumps but different. You have to decide which should concern you and which are simply irritants.
This journey of discovery is the one I wished to take a decade ago but life got in the way. On the West coast of Scotland they have a saying:
I must have been around seven years old when my father brought home an old bicycle frame and set about making up a bicycle for me. It was a fixed wheel, possibly all he had, no saddle, only a hessian bag tied around the top tube and too big for me to ride. But dad, ever resourceful attached wooden blocks onto the pedals, enabling me to reach them. It was a long wait, and then there it was my first bike, in all its glory. It was difficult enough balancing at first, then there was the fixed wheel to contend with, but soon I was riding it around the street, pedalling as hard as I possibly could, singing at the top of my voice;
‘Riding along on the crest of a wave, when the sun is in the sky,
all our eyes on the distant horizon ………………. ‘
You couldn’t get me off that bike. Riding fixed wheel was fun. If you rode with one straight leg the pedals lifted you up and down like a jack-in-the-box. Downhill the pedals went like the clappers so it was feet up, getting your feet back on the pedals again was an art in itself. Later it would have a saddle fitted and the blocks would eventually be removed, and the rear wheel swapped for one with a three- speed hub, oh joy of joy!
My hero at that time was Ian Steel, an exceptional Scottish cyclist from Glasgow who had won the Peace Race two years on the trot in 1951 – 1952. I remember asking dad to take me over to Kincardine Bridge, on the back of his motorcycle, to see Ian Steel ride over the bridge on the ninth stage of the Daily Express 1952 Tour of Britain, Dundee to Edinburgh – 91.5 miles. Many cyclists had gathered and we chanted as they went flying past “Ian, Ian, Ian.” Bob Maitland (a BSA rider) and Ken Russell from Shipley (a privateer who built his own bike, so he could enter) were also racing that day. Ken Russell won the Daily Express 1952 Tour of Britain by a mere three minutes after 1470 miles of racing. Years later, and now retired, I would ride out socially most Wednesdays with Ken and many other riders who had been top-guns in their day, even one who had won two stages of the Tour de France in the 1960s. Bob Maitland too, I got to know well in those days. You would not believe the people I brushed shoulders with.
Riding a bicycle was the one thing I was really good at and moreover something I just loved doing. Two of my elder sisters had joined the CTC (cycle touring club) but not for the cycling, I suspect, so I joined too. Ride outs were on a Sunday, and gave rise to the CTC becoming affectionately known as the cafe to cafe club, for that is where we always ended up. Youth Hostelling during holidays was always something to look forward to. At that time we had to do chores in the morning; first up would be given easy tasks. Unfortunately my big sister liked her bed and was always slow to rise, so would be given such jobs as washing down the stairs or cleaning the toilets, then again she knew we would pitch in just to get on our way, she was not daft, was our Irene.
In 1959 I joined the RAF and after basic and trade training I was shipped out to Laarbruch in Germany, a station that lay very close to the Dutch border. Once settled I went off to find the PTI (physical training instructor) to see about a bicycle from the Nuffield Trust (Lord Nuffield was Mr. Morris of Morris Motor Company fame) I was given a decent road bike and since there was little in the way of racing on the camp or in the local area I went over to Holland and was soon in tow (literally) with a local cycle club. Cycling was a national sport in Holland and some of these lads and lasses were semi-professional, my riding skills, speed, stamina was greatly enhanced by being with such riders. I bought a second-hand estate car, which was really a van with windows in the side, from an airman returning home after his tour of duty. Europe was now my oyster, I really did not want to come back home.
Demobilised in 1965 I still cycled but not nearly to the extent I had done, until that is, the son, of my next-door neighbour, a policeman in Edinburgh, moved with his wife and two kids to Canada. Intending to join the Mounties, when they arrived he found work in the Dunlop factory and he never did join the Mounties. His father was not keeping well so I would do shopping for him, take in the odd meal and generally tidy up for him. His condition worsened over time and eventually he was taken into hospital suffering from pneumonia. The doctors did not hold out much hope of recovery so I phoned his son to tell him what the doctors had said, and he arranged to come over with the family. They stayed for three weeks in the old boys flat, doing a bit of sightseeing and catching up with old friends, but still the old man hung on. They had to return to Canada, but the plane would hardly have touched down when the old man passed away. I phoned the son and told him the news.
“I can’t come back over” he told me. “If I give you power of attorney would you see dad cremated and the house cleared?”
How could I refuse? When everything was settled I phoned him again.
“I can’t thank you enough” he told me “If you ever want to come to Canada for a holiday you will be made welcome”.
I joined a club run by the Canadian government (they were still looking for people to emigrate to Canada at that time) and if you joined and attended the club each month, where you would be shown films and given lectures about all the advantages of moving to Canada you got offered a seat on a chartered plane to go out there for two weeks. I did not want to move to Canada but wanted simply to take advantage of the chartered plane.
The family could not do enough for me on my arrival; trips to the lakes of one thousand islands, trips over to the US to an old west reconstruction, covered wagons, shoot outs at the OK Coral, and yes, ice hockey – that was a passion with the family, they all skated well. What I never could get used to was the amount of food they consumed, at breakfast, brunch, lunch, dinner and then sending out for pizza whilst watching the game on the television.
When my two weeks were up, it seemed crazy for me to return home, after all the effort of getting there. I bought a second hand bike with rack and panniers and set off into the USA with no real plan in place. In the evening I would look out for folk clubs, bars with music and offer to do a turn. You would not believe the amount of Americans who believe their distant ancestors came from Scotland, far more than the entire population of our country. A few Scots songs and the whisky tears were rolling down their cheeks. I would be rewarded with a drink, often food but mostly a place to spend the night, although I did have my back up plan, my tent. When money was scarce or winter was closing in I would find employment, and that was my life for the next two years as I made my way, first west, then south and finally east around America. I was given a ride from Florida in a motorhome, its owners travelling back to Washington DC. Next stop from there was home on a tramp steamer. It all seemed to pass so quickly, and to have happened in a different life. My biggest regret was not being able to keep a log of my sojourning.
Home again, and I was soon back in harness. With decent wages and a disposable income, I started planning trips over to Europe. Cycling the Loire from source to the sea and the Compostela de Santiago were just two of the most notable, but at first it was trips back to Holland and always France.
When I retired I had planned to go and live on the canals of France in my old Folk boat. Mum was an elderly lady by now and went into hospital with heart trouble and breathing difficulties, they found she had exceptionally high blood pressure, so they put her on a machine to thin the blood. Five weeks later she was due to be discharged but only if there was someone at home to look after her. Thinking that this would only be until she got back on her feet I said I would stay with her.
Not long after I moved in with her mum had a mild stroke, and I would become her carer. With no disposable income, I sold my house in Scotland and moved down permanently to Yorkshire. We bought a van, converted to take her mobility scooter, so I could now ferry mum around, shopping, hospital appointments or simply to get away from the four walls. Mum went into day centre every Wednesday so I had a day off.
A blind lad had advertised in the Telegraph and Argos; he wanted to buy a tandem and was looking for someone to captain it. I volunteered. A totally new experience for me. For a start, with him not being able to see I had to talk all the time, telling him we were coming up to a roundabout or halt sign, changing gear, hill ahead. The other problem was he was sitting on the rear like a big sack of potatoes strapped into his pedals. When we stopped or slowed down I had all the weight of the bike.
As well as riding a bicycle, I rode a tricycle and it was when we went over to the York Rally that year he bought a second hand tandem tricycle, just out of the blue, no prompting. It was great to be able to simply stop and not worry about balance. We went out every Wednesday for a full day on the tricycle, meeting up with many retired cyclists that were also out enjoying the beautiful Yorkshire Dales, an experience I will always look back on with fondness.
When mum died I returned home to Scotland, finding a place in a sheltered housing development in Elie, in Fife. Tim, mum’s Yorkshire terrier and I enjoyed long walks each day along the shore:
‘House Martins and Swallow in erratic flight,
Gulls diving seaward from astonishing height,
Curlews nest in the rough grass nearby,
a pretty chaffinch sings its song to the sky.
I love when the waves crash onto the shore,
retreat, regroup, advance once more,
feel foaming surf between my toes,
Such days as these I do adore.’
I was coming home one day on a motorcycle. I was more or less stopped and I leaned forward to save a shopping bag precariously hooked onto the handlebars, when the bike started to lean over and I found I could not hold it. It fell over on top of my right leg snapping two of the bones in my lower leg, one in two places and very close to the ankle. I thought not a problem I will be up and about in no time. Sadly that did not happen. The tricycle sat in the corner of the room along side my solo bike. I was thinking how difficult a place Elie would be to live in for the elderly person (my future) so made a conscious decision to move to St. Andrews, best move I ever made.