Archive for February, 2011

The rail less travelled by


Bike-less (its waiting for me to pick up the trail in Manchester again) and with time to spare, I decided to take a route less travelled by, at least by me. There is a little train that trundles – that is definitely the right word – across the middle of England from Birmingham to Stansted Airport. I became familiar with it while doing some work in Cambridge and used it to travel between there and the airport but the collection of smaller towns after that and their sheer variety evoked an interesting picture: the route links the brash coarseness of Stansted with its budget airlines to, well, the brash coarseness of Birmingham, but on the way takes in the ancient and modern centre of learning and high-tech that is Cambridge, the city of Ely with its equally ancient and magnificent cathedral and the quintessential English rural market town of Melton Mowbray, home of Stilton cheese and the pork pie.

I had cycled through some of this area a couple of days previously, and was also interested to see whether I got the same perspective: I had moved from a kind of reasonably well-off suburbia, through villages with a real rural feel – though to be truthful always with a sense that there were too many people, and far too much money, for it to be genuinely supported by a local economy – and slowly back into the dormitory towns of the industrial midlands.

The train was pretty full for most of the journey, though few of us seemed to travel the whole way – not surprising, as it is in fact quicker to travel from Birmingham to Cambridge via London. .For the first hour of so the train winds through dormitory towns, row upon row of terraced or semi-detached 1930s housing, with the occasional patch of farmland, as we pass Nuneaton and head for Leicester. After Leicester there are more clustered villages, open land with the occasional steeple on the horizon and far fewer housing estates – at least until Melton Mowbray, which to my slight surprise looked, from the train, bigger and more urbanised than I had expected.

By Ely, sadly, the watery winter sun had given up the unequal struggle and gone down: I couldn’t see the famous cathedral. One more sight left for next time. All in all a pleasant journey through a varied and fascinating part of England.


Completely flat and all uphill


I’m not quite sure exactly what picture I originally had in my head about this trip. It was always planned for winter, partly because the thought to doing in the summer heat with lots of insects flying into my mouth nose and ears really didn’t appeal. But I think it was a different winter: one with cold, crisp, still mornings, blue skies and possibly comely maidens at the crossroads handing out cheese (with age, I become more realistic about what comely maidens might offer). Not, it should be said, one with a roaring gale blowing straight from the direction I was heading.

I was getting a little annoyed with myself, this was not eating up the kilometres. It wasn’t even eating up the metres very quickly. In the beginning, I thought it was the lingering hangover and the late start as I headed off up the banks of the Rhine, leaving the city of Düsseldorf behind me in a grey, dingy, February light. Even after an hour or so as my head cleared though, it still felt as if I was cycling through treacle and by the time I arrived in Venlo, just over the Dutch border I was wrecked. A shower, pizza and bed called, in that order, and I never got to investigate the intriguing, tiny, bar (called the “Altied Zondaag“, if anyone wants to check it out) that was absolutely packed to the seams while every other bar in town seemed utterly deserted. Tomorrow would be better.

Well, tomorrow dawned and off I set. It wasn’t quite that immediate: if I were Bill Bryson I’d have found lots of interesting facts out about Venlo, but I’m not so I slept longer than I should, lingered too long over breakfast and then got lost trying to find the exit. I can say that it seems a nice town, with some fine old herenhuizen and a plethora of roadworks.

The wind roared in my ears, it made it hard to think let alone hear the traffic behind me. Sevenum, 10 km away, took an age to reach and had an unfortunate shortage of decent coffee, at least anywhere obvious on my route. It’s main square is probably lovely in the summer sun, though you would have to look at the church and I’m not sure it was just my jaundiced mood that made me think it was one of the ugliest I’ve ever seen.

With coffee, and a soup at the next stop, things picked up a little. Partly because I got on to a very well signposted set of bike routes that gave me a clear indication of the nice paths to take on my way, and partly because I was beginning to think that I wasn’t just being a complete wimp about the wind, little clues such as blown down signs, dead birds – at one point two lying entangled on the ground that must have just been blown into each other and the fact that people were looking at me as if I were possibly insane began to alert me to the idea that this wasn’t all about me. When I later heard on the news that one runway had been closed at Schiphol and various rail services cancelled because of the high winds I felt strangely vindicated, despite having to take a train for the final 20 km of that day’s journey: 8 hours cycling got me 100 km from Venlo to ‘s Hertogenbosch but by then it was nine in the evening, pitch dark and anyway, why do I need an excuse?

The Hotel Gorinchem was unprepossessing on the outside and buzzing, rather unexpectedly, on the in. Those comely maidens I mentioned were all, it transpired, there, learning to dance the salsa and the music was booming out as this sweaty, smelly old fart on a bicycle landed up in reception thinking “oh, no, is this noise going to go on all night?“. But they cooked me chicken and chips, gave me a room away from the noise and generally confounded my expectations.

Windmill on the outskirts of Gorinchem

Windmill on the outskirts of Gorinchem

It would be nice to report that, after a shower, I went to join the salsa dancers, stunned them with my skilful footwork and politely but firmly declined the many offered temptations, and indeed in my dreams two of those three things may well have happened. Sleep has rarely come so easily.