Category Archives: Journal

Flying The Flag – Lavenham Jacket & Gilet

King George V Colonnade on the seafront at Bexhill, East Sussex, EnglandHow nice it is to see something made in England for once. A press release lobbed into my in-tray yesterday proclaiming the news that the English clothing firm Lavenham – best known for its quilted jackets for the equestrian set – has teamed up with London’s trendy Look Mum No Hands cycling café to design what appears to be a rather stylish (and quilted, naturally) cycling jacket and gilet.

In looks and design both the clothes and collaboration appears to be taking up where Rapha left off – a sort of gentrified urban chic, with a generous dollop of English country squire thrown in.

Unlike Rapha though (unless Rapha have changed since I bought my classic softshell from them ) the new Horringer jacket and Withersfield gilet are actually made in England, at Lavenham’s workshop in the Suffolk village of the same name.

Both jacket and gilet are made of pure English wool whose quilted outer surface has been coated to make it water resistant. The jacket has raglan sleeves, tailored for a comfortable range of motion on the bike, and ribbed cuffs to keep out the breeze. Cutaway slightly in front, and long in the tail it is designed to drape well over your back and give you good coverage from the elements when you ride. It has three utility pockets and reflected piping around them – vital, one would think, given its navy blue colour. It has stud closures up the front.

The gillet is cut along a similar pattern, but with two utility pockets, piping and a zip front. It, too, is navy blue.

You can see them both here

At £250 for the jacket and £185 for the gilet, they are hardly budget apparel – but then they wouldn’t be, given they are made of pure wool and made here in England. At that their prices compare favourably with Rapha’s softshell classic (£260) and Transfer Gilet (£150), both of which are made in Asia (I believe) and practically giveaways compared with Brooks line of made-in-England John Boultbee clothing (Blackwell jacket €550; Criterios jacket €1000)

There are no reviews on the Lavenham website yet from purchasers of the jacket or gilet, so I can offer no independent analysis of how they actually perform. They look rather elegant though, and would go particularly well with a classic bicycle. Indeed, if Purdey made bicycles instead of shotguns, this or the pricey Brooks numbers would be what you’d wear.

 

 

Breaking News…?

Sunrise at low tide, Cooden Beach East Sussex EnglandBreaking news … the sun rose over the English Channel right on time, the tide was out just as predicted and the whole scene was rather pink and pretty from where I stood along  Cooden Beach on my way back from my morning ride. Sure such events  might not seem like ‘breaking news’  in the traditional ink-under-the-fingernails, press-card-in-the-fedora journalistic sense, but as a former newspaperman  watching the ‘breaking news’ label being applied to just about anything and everything these days on media websites  (BBC, CNN, Guardian etc) I am starting to feel as though I am  not getting my fair share of great 21st century scoops.

Journalism has certainly changed a lot in the time I have been practicing it. Over the past few days I have seen the pulse-quickening ‘Breaking News…” label affixed to the casual utterance of a minor health official over the possibility of further cases of Ebola in the West at some point in the future, and a several-years-old story of a St Louis family that found their house invaded by poisonous brown recluse spiders and were obliged to move out. Since the family apparently moved out two years ago, the decision by editors at CNN to describe their troubles as ‘Breaking news…” (as I saw on the Guardian website as well) seemed just a trifle overstated.  Apparently the ‘breaking’ aspect of this story was that after standing idle for two years the house was being fumigated this week.  Breaking news? Really? I mean, I could see this being a news story if it was the White House we were talking about, but a suburban bungalow in St Louis?  And ‘breaking news…’ at that?

Such breathless – indeed ridiculous – headlining does no one any favours, least of all the media organisations who practice it or the profession (dare I call it that?) of journalism. I remember the first time I ever saw a breaking news banner (it said ‘Bulletin’ actually) was the 22nd of November 1963 when WGN TV interrupted Bozo’s Circus to inform its watchers that President Kennedy had just been shot.

And now we have – as I also saw not long ago – the ‘breaking news’ banner being trotted out for breathless reportage of a politician’s trite observation that ‘banks put profits before people’.

Someone needs to tap somebody on the shoulder and remind them that just because we can report everything on the instant, and worldwide, it doesn’t make it ‘breaking news…’ Otherwise journalism becomes about as shallow as the film of water coating the low-tide sands on Cooden Beach.

Low Tide, Bexhill-on-Sea

Digging Lugworms at Low Tide, Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex

 

The tide was well out this morning when I spun along the Bexhill seafront on my way back from my jaunt over to Pevensey Castle. The sun was freshly risen, casting fans of light through the clouds billowing over the channel – forerunners of the heavy weather that is meant to be coming our way this week. As I was riding past the town I noticed the figures of these two fisherman at waters’ edge, with the shimmering tide pools behind them, and hopped off by bicycle to take this image.

 

The Blue Hour

The Blue Hour - Hastings seafront promenade before dawn, Hastings England

Photographers call it The Blue Hour – that magical hour or so just before dawn (or after sunset) when there is still enough ambient light to see and photography by, but the sky takes on a rich luminous blue quality.  Physicists will tell you that The Blue Hour has to do with the relative diffusability of the short blue wavelengths and the longer red ones.

For me the Blue Hour is  best when the sky is overcast, and better still when there’s rain coming or already in the air, as it was this morning when I was riding along the seafront promenade here in Hastings, and pedalling  into the stormy weather that was rising in the west. It was about twenty minutes before sunrise. The wind was blowing, the sea was ruffled, there was even a bit of thunder in the air and this lustrous blue backdrop of rain cloud ahead. I hopped off, unfolded my tripod and fired a few frames, not so much for the composition (although I like it’s simplicity and familiarity) but because I loved the rich blue colour of the sky and wanted to bring some home with me.

Autumn Mists

Autumn Mists over the Sussex coast, near Cooden Well, it looks as though our pleasant run of Indian Summer weather has ended here in Sussex and good old-fashioned October weather has arrived with a vengeance. I noticed it yesterday morning when I went out for my ride and found the air a very sharp 3C with a freezing mist laying over the marshes. More unusually it was hovering over the sea near Cooden Beach, in a low dense ragged pall that reminded me uncannily of sea mists I have seen in Antarctica, along the Antarctic Peninsula. It looked as though there ought to have been pancake ice and bergy bits floating in the glassy swell – it was that kind of a scene: cold and white and ragged.

The tide was in. Although I could see that without that without the requisite bergy bits to give depth and interest, it would not work as a photograph I pulled over anyway and took a few photos along one of the mist and sea along one of the wooden groynes. I didn’t linger. I hadn’t dressed for the weather. My feet were freezing. So were my hands.

And now I am sitting here soaking wet, trying not to let my wet hair drip on the laptop keyboard while outside the wind-driven rain lashes against the window. So much for Indian Summer. Have to start looking for beauty in the melancholy of autumn.

 

A Soft English Evening

Stade Beach-5Oh the irony. When I started writing this blog early three years ago now, it was in part to reacquaint myself with the idea of writing to deadlines, and the fast pace of daily journalism which I had been missing. And now I am finding it hard to find time either to ride or blog because of the string of fast-turn-around stories I am doing for National Geographic and NPR (National Public Radio) in the US.

Don’t get me wrong. As a scrambling freelance I am very happy to get the work. But I am finding myself getting badly behind in my riding and my blog posting. Yesterday I was up early but where I would normally have been out on the road, pedalling across the misty marshes by starlight, I was here at the kitchen table, rounding my shoulders over my laptop and doing Google searches to find Turkish academics and historians and political commentators who might be willing to comment on the Tomb of Suleyman Shah – a curious Turkish exclave in Syria which could well be the catalyst for bringing Turkey into Syria’s civil war.

The tomb itself – which contains the remains of the 13th century Turkic nobleman whose grandson, Osman I, founded the Ottoman Empire –is sovereign Turkish territory; a few acres of manicured lawn and a white stone mausoleum in a field that that will be forever Turkey, despite its being 20 miles inside Syria. This curious arrangement was guaranteed by the 1921 Treaty of Ankara which ended the Franco-Turkish War and established the boundaries of modern Syria.

Had it not been for the Syrian civil war, this geographical oddity – Turkey’s only overseas territory – would have been nothing more than a historical oddity and perhaps a knotty trivia question on quiz night. But with thousands of ISIS fighters advancing on Syria’s Kurdish militias and intense fighting taking place all around it, the Turks are faced with a question of what to do if their sovereign territory (and a monument of great historical significance) is overrun – let alone destroyed, as ISIS fighters have been wont to do to other historical tombs and mosques around Syria. Sensing trouble, the Turkish government last March removed the small group of conscripts that had been guarding the sleepy outpost and replaced them with 60 elite special forces troops, with the president repeatedly warning anyone who would listen that Turkey would defend that ancient tomb. This week with fighting raging around the tomb and the nearby town of Kobane the Turkish Government voted by a convincing margin to enter the conflict.

Researching and writing all this was my lot yesterday with a tight deadline looming. Finally, after I filed my story late yesterday afternoon, and with my eyes feeling like someone had squired lemon juice in them from so much time staring into a computer screen, I went out to the shed and took out the old tourer for a nice restorative ride along the seafront. It is wonderful, the restorative capacity of a bike ride. The evening was warm and beautiful, the air soft with a fine, champagne light raking over the seafront. I could feel the tensions rolling away, together with a quiet sense of gratitude to be living in such a pleasant and peaceful corner of the world.

Moonrise over the seafront along Hastings promenade, Hastings, East Sussex, England

Sussex sunrises

Blood red sun rises over the remains of Hastings pier, Hastings East Sussex, EnglandSeptember, I’ve noticed, is a time of mists and drenching dew and deep violet salt haze when you look out to sea. We’ve been having plenty of all of the above these past three weeks. I love it. What I particularly like about this time of year, at least along this stretch of the Sussex coast is the way the sun often rises like a huge blood red orb in the mornings – a sort of ‘Serengeti  sunrise’, if you will, but without the silhouettes of the acacia trees to give it that sense of the exotic.

It simmered up beautifully this morning as I was spinning along the seafront – in point of fact it did so just as I was thinking to myself that the haze over the sea was just that bit too thick for one of those good blood red suns. I looked up and there it was, burning through the mists like a dying ember. I hopped off my my bike and trotted out to a good vantage point on the beach, camera in hand,  to capture it just as it appeared in full, over the end of Hastings pier, now in fill-blown reconstruction ode. It may not have been an acacia tree, like those picturesque Serengeti  sunrises, but I liked the silhouette of the crane and the pier anyway, and the tiny figures of the early morning beachcombers watching a new day dawn over Sussex. Call it a Sussex sunrise.

Happy Hour

Dawn mist rising on old marsh road, Pevensey, East Sussex, EnglandI knew there was a reason why I went out early in the morning for my bicycle rides, aside from the simple liking of the dawn hours, but over the many years of getting up and heading out the door in the starlit grey I had more or less come to take the morning quiet for granted. Not any more.

I had a stark reminder of just how unpleasant it can be to ride a bicycle through a swirl of school run traffic this past Friday afternoon when, for various complicated reasons, I was obliged to ride seven miles to my daughter’s school, near Battle, to make certain she had the necessary bus fare for the ride home. I’d had reason for believing she hadn’t. In fact, as it turned out, she had – my trip was not only unpleasant, but in vain.

Yes, I know, a mobile phones could have saved the day. Indeed my daughter has one, and had it with her – we insist for safety’s sake with her taking public transport – but students at the school are technically forbidden to have phones with them, let alone turn them on whilst on school grounds and being a rule-abiding sort of girl she had her switched off and was unlikely to turn it on even after school was out, if she was still on the grounds.

And so at two-thirty on that hot sultry Friday afternoon I hopped aboard my trusty dawn treadly and pedalled over to Battle. It was a moderately stressful ride for someone who has become so blissfully unaccustomed to school run traffic, as they call this unhappy hour in England, with cars whizzing past my elbow at a rate of about one per second – unpleasant enough in the thirty- and forty-mile-per hour zones, and deeply unpleasant in the sixty mile an hour stretch.

The B2159 is narrow and potholed and the motorists who were thronging it at this hour were feeling aggressive, eager for the weekend, passing whether it was safe or not, and very much wanting to put every other bit of traffic behind them. ‘Me first’ was the guiding principle.

This all came to a grinding halt on the outskirts of Battle. Battle, in case you’ve never been there, is quite a pretty and ancient English village that grew up around the abbey William the Conqueror built to commemorate the fallen from the Battle of Hastings in 1066, which actually took place here – in Battle, rather than Hastings. Like all quaint and pretty English villages, Battle was not designed for 21st century traffic. Its narrow high street is barely wide enough for two cars to pass – if a car, say, and a bus meet in the street requires both to slow to a crawl and ease past each others, wing mirrors scraping. Two trucks or busses meeting can cause havoc. Even a bicycle can not worm through a traffic jam in a small English village. I dismounted and walked the bike along the footpath until I reached the opposite end of the village then remounted and rode on to school – fifty minutes to cover seven miles on a bicycle.

The ride home was even worse. The high street was at a dead stop, one long tailback of purring, idling, ozone-emitting vehicles waiting for — who knows? I walked past my daughter’s bus, and scores more idled cars, once more to the opposite end of the village them remounted for the white knuckle ride back along the B2159. As slow a ride as it seemed to me, I still got home a good half an hour before my daughter did on the bus. Just another afternoon of school run traffic here in jolly old England.

It felt so good to go out bright and early this morning….

Favourite Childhood Books

Great Tales of ActionWriting in my post the other day about the new Kindle Paperwhite and old-fashioned books and memories of old-fashioned books brought to mind a lot of fond recollections of sitting on the porch at the venerable family pile in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, with the scent of balsam in the air and the cheerful babble of the brook coming up through the woods at the bottom of our meadow.

An idyllic place to sit and read a book on a fine summer’s day, was our porch. We had a sturdy old wicker rocking chair out there, and a mission rocker as well, and a solid oak mission sofa – and a bookshelf, stocked with plenty of classic dog-day-afternoon hammock reads: Perry Mason and Agatha Christie, and a collection of hardcover children’s classics, illustrated by the likes of N.C. Wyeth, Howard Pyle and Worth Brehm, that had been my father’s when he was a boy. They included some of my all-time favourite reads: Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Kidnapped and Treasure Island. I remember the set contained Ivanhoe as well, and Mysterious Island. Although I enjoyed both of those, neither ever quite attainted the beloved annual-summer-read status of the others.

"One more step, Mr Hands... " N.C. Wyeth illustration from Treasure Island

“One more step, Mr Hands… ” N.C. Wyeth illustration from Treasure Island

An anthology of Sherlock Holmes stories was out there on the porch shelf, as was an illustrated edition of Around the World in Eighty Days, a complete collection of dog-eared paperback Fu Manchu thrillers by Sax Rohmer (whose lurid covers and casual racism makes me cringe today) and a collection of riveting short stories (mainly out of the ‘20s and ‘30s) called Great Tales of Action & Adventure that my brother and I read over and over and over and over. It contained unforgettable pearls such as Leiningen versus The Ants; The Bamboo Trap; The Most Dangerous Game and To Build a Fire that we happily recall to this day, as well as its manly cover illustration of somebody getting kneed in the groin and socked in the jaw.

These were the books (and illustrators) that enriched and informed our boyhood worlds. And of course they all had those wonderful covers, unlike my much-read and enjoyed Kindle which resides in a striped leatherette case. That is something I will always miss with e-books – the scent of a musty, slightly foxed page and allure of a gaudy cover that invites you to pick up the book, peek inside and disappear into its magical worlds.

The Kindle Paperwhite

One Lonely Night 2I am one of those people who simply has to have something to read within reach, wherever he goes. If I take the train up to London you can bet I will have at least one, if not two, books in my knapsack, and be sure to pick up a copy of the free Metro newspaper at the station. I can’t bear to sit idle with nothing to read.

Even on bicycle tours where weight is ostensibly critical, I will pack several books in my panniers for quiet evenings in B&Bs or camping in the bush or, like when I was pedalling through the scorching heat of the Australian outback, long breathlessly hot afternoons spent sitting out the heat of the day in whatever shade I could find. I might do without cooking utensils, stove and fuel – and indeed, did – but never without books.

On my cycling trek from London to Istanbul, done in the cold and rainy summer of 2000, I packed along a dog-eared collection of second-hand Mickey Spillane novels which I read and re-read on many a rainy night in cheap pensions – I, The Jury, Vengeance is Mine!, My Gun is Quick! and One Lonely Night, to name but a few. I still have them somewhere in my wardrobe, musty, slightly foxed, with their wonderfully garish Signet covers from the 50s. I love them.

When the Kindle first came out a few years ago I was deeply sceptical about e-books. How could they possibly replace the tactile sense of reading a paperback, let alone offer the ease and clarity of a printed page in all sorts of conditions. But then my wife bought me one for a Christmas present a few years ago – this not long after an assignment that took me to the Cook Islands, and for which I had taken along more than a dozen thick books to cover my reading needs and moods for the duration. The convenience of being able to carry hundreds of books, for the space and weight of a slender paperback won me over – surprisingly quickly – even if the reading experience itself was a bit diminished.I The Jury

Last month though, I got the new generation Kindle Paperwhite and since then all my old prejudices against e-books vanished completely. The clarity and page-like feel of the screen is nigh unto perfect, and when you have the Paperwhite in a case, and thus are holding it open like a book, it replicates the traditional reading experience wonderfully – so wonderfully that I am actually clearing out space in my bookshelf, getting rid of mountains of books that I find better and easier to carry around on my Kindle. I’m not going overboard, here. I’ll keep my Mickey Spillanes with their racy covers, and a good few other old favourites as well – for sentimental reasons more than practicality – as well as those favourites I can’t yet get on Kindle (John Dos Passos USA Trilogy, for one). But I have really been enjoying reading on the new Kindle Paperwhite, and the sweet simplicity of being able to pick up a single paperback-sized ‘book’ and open it to any page, in almost any book I choose. And I could even double up on my old favourite Spillanes for a few pennies a copy!