Category Archives: Journal
“Delighted to hear that Bexhill has emerged from barbarism at last, but I shall not give it a clean bill of civilisation until all my plays are performed there once a year at least,” George Bernard Shaw is said to have remarked upon learning of the De La Warr Pavilion’s opening in 1935. It was one of the first examples of Modernist architecture in Britain, although – possibly because of its curves, streamlining, and the 1930s era it evokes – it is occasionally described as Art Deco.
There were no Shaw plays being performed there when I pedalled by the other evening, but Elvis Costello was there and his music could be heard drifting out in the warm summer night. I pulled over to listen, set up my tripod while I was about it and took this image.
On another subject I will be away from my desk for about a week – off to the wilds of Snowdonia, and will be unlikely to be able to post (or for that matter watch the last two stages of what has been an absorbing Tour de France) Enjoy the rest of July. See you in August.
I was a ropey-armed kid roaming the backroads of Carroll County, New Hampshire on a second-hand Schwinn Varsity when the May 1973 issue of National Geographic lobbed on our doorstep and fired my imagination with a story inside about cycling the Alaskan Highway.
Even today, all these years later, I can still see some of those photographs in my mind’s eye – the inset shot of the four cyclists pedalling straight into the camera lens, their touring bikes loaded up for distant places; the picture of the guy straddling his bike in front of this tacky sprawl of hometown signs and mileposts somewhere up in the Yukon Territory, looking for all the world as though he were making up his mind where he might go next; or the picaresque image of the girl playing her harmonica one-handed as she spun along a stretch of wide-open Canadian highway, across the prairies, free as air, with the whole summer – the whole of her life – spread out before her.
The touring story was included as an accompaniment to larger piece about the cycling boom that was sweeping America in the early Seventies, but I felt as though it had been written especially for me. Like the America described in the main feature, I too was discovering the breezy freedoms of being out and about on a bike, and here before me, in vivid Kodachrome, was affirmation of the daydream that had been teasing my imagination every time I went out for a ride: the fact that I had, in my trusty Schwinn, a vehicle that could take me anyplace I wanted to go – even the wilds of Alaska.
Twinned with this was the idea that I would love to write for National Geographic. As benign providence would have it, I did indeed grow up to contribute to National Geographic – filing my first story in 1997. And it was a cycling story too, a three-part series about my 10,000 mile solo bicycle trek around Australia.
Jump forward another 17 years and something like 20 major features in the magazine, and I have landed my first cover. It is a story about a fabulous archaeology find in Orkney: an elaborate Stone Age temple complex that was built on the Ness of Brodgar centuries before Stonehenge.
For me though, this too was a cycling story. For the past few summers I have been travelling up to Orkney – a chain of hauntingly beautiful islands off the northern tip of Scotland – every August during the field season to follow the progress of the excavation at ‘The Ness’ as it is known. When I went I would bring my bicycle. I’d take it on the train to Inverness and on up to Thurso, and then take the ferry to Stromness. Late in the evening of my second day of travelling from Hastings I would pedal down the ramp of the ferry at Stromness and ride out of town to my B&B near the little village of Harray.
These became wonderfully familiar roads. Instead of renting a car I got about on my tourer: a savings for National Geographic and a delight for me. And it truly was truly delightful. Every morning, after a stout breakfast at my B&B I would set out to visit the dig or pedal around Mainland (the largest of the Orkney Islands) looking at other sites – the Ring of Brodgar, Maeshowe, Scara Brae or the Broch of Gurness – and absorbing something of the mystical beauty of the landscape. Sometimes I hopped ferries and explored other islands as well – Hoy, Westray, Rousay, or made a long rode down to the Churchill Barriers, cross Scape Flow and explored South Ronaldsay. These are perfect islands to explore by bicycle.
I loved every moment.
As I pedaled around Orkney during those summer idylls, working on what was to become a cover story in the magazine, I often thought about that long ago May 1973 issue of National Geographic and the daydreams it inspired. It can be nice the way things work out, even if it takes a little longer than you might think.
You can read this month’s National Geographic story on Orkney here
While pedalling around Orkney I made my own gallery of images, which you can see here
Here in Sussex we have been enjoying a week of especially fine summery weather with temperatures climbing up near 30C towards the end of the week – that’s 86 degrees in old money. I love it personally. Having lived in Australia for many years, and even growing up in relatively cool New England, I simply understand how people in Britain can refer to such temperatures as ‘scorching’ and keep a straight face. Yet they do, and frequently. To me, temperatures in the mid-80s Fahrenheit are just about right for summer, and perfect for going out on your bike.
Lately I have taken to going out for my rides in the evenings – all the better to enjoy the residual afternoon warmth and long evening sunshine after having been cooped up at my desk writing all day. There is also a sense of discovery in going out evenings after so many years of pre-dawn rides. The end-of-day atmosphere is so different from the early morning one, it is like visiting a whole new place.
Bexhill seafront, so desolate in the pre-dawn hours when I customarily ride along it, was positively buzzing the other evening at around nine o’clock, with people strolling along the promenade taking advantage of the long warm evening of what had been the hottest day of the year so far.
It was nice to hop off the bike and spend a while just lingering on a bench, absorbing a little of the old-fashioned summery feel and sense of nostalgia. As the light in the sky faded, the promenade emptied and the first lights began to twinkle in the dusk I took this photo of the ice cream kiosk at the Old Bathing Station selling its last two ice creams of the day.
Just on a whim I took a spin down to the working end of the beach this morning instead of carving my usual left hand turn by the town centre and starting the long homeward climb up Queen’s Road. I don’t often come down this way and since I had my camera with me I thought I would poke around amongst the beached fishing boats.
Hastings, if you didn’t know it, has the largest fleet of shore-based fishing boats left in Europe. Shore-based fishing is a tradition that goes back a thousand years. Back in the olden days they launched their shallow-draft, clinker-hulled craft with teams of horses or oxen; nowadays they have hard-bitten old bulldozers and tractors to do the work, dragging them up or down the shingle beach.
I dismounted in front of the huddle of tall weathered fisherman’s shacks and walked my bike between them and down through the sprawl of lobster traps, nets and floats, old boats and tractors that covers acres of this part of the beach. The shingle was deep and mushy and pushing my bike was no easy task. I found my way out onto a breaker arm and, leaning my bike against a railing there, dug out my camera with an idea of taking some photos back towards town and the pier.
A dense bank of sea mist welling in the east spoiled the early promise of sweet clear sunshine and while I stood there waiting, and hoping, for better light, the fleet came in. One by one they hove into view, shimmering out of the horizon and into the shallows, their skippers driving them up onto the shingle. The air was full of the growling of tractors, shots of men and the greedy screech of hundreds of wheeling gulls. It was a wonderful spectacle – one I had never witnessed before. Alas, I was in just the wrong place to photograph it as it should have been photographed and the light was dull and flat. But I’ll definitely be coming back. I just love the discoveries you can make on a bicycle, and the way a bike ride can open your eyes and your willingness to poke around, take the long way, discover.
I was lining up this shot early the other morning, of the old Marine Court building, when an weathered old council worker who had been picking up litter on the beach sidled up and asked me if I knew what the building was and what it was supposed to represent.
I told him that I understood it was meant to resemble the Cunard liner Queen Mary, at anchor.
He smiled at that. “You’re one of the very few people who know that anymore.”
“You must be a bit of a historian yourself,” I replied.
He was more than that. We fell to talking. It turned out he had been many years at sea with the British merchant marine, and the South African merchant marine as well, and had sailed all over the world, been just about everywhere before coming back to Hastings and finishing his career on one of the local fishing boats. “I finally did my shoulder in hauling a net just off Bexhill a few years ago,” he concluded . “And that was it for me. Now I just pick up litter on the beach.” He shrugged. “It’s better than sitting around though.”
We wished each other a good day and as he drifted away, to resume his morning litter patrol along the beach, I marvelled at the untold stories of the people we see around us, all the lives that are lived out beyond the periphery of our own.
I have been really enjoying watching the Le Tour in Yorkshire these past couple of days – amazed by the size and enthusiasm of the crowds thronging the route (one could almost believe Britain was a cycling country!) and marvelling at how pretty Yorkshire’s countryside is. I have travelled to, and through, Yorkshire but mainly along the coast, to Whitby and Filey Bay when I did a story about the search for the long-lost wreck of the Bonhomme Richard – the 18th century U.S. warship that was sunk after its epic battle with HMS Serapis in 1779. Most of the time I was bobbing around in an old fishing boat in Filey Bay. Most of my glimpses of Yorkshire’s countryside came from the flickering windows of a train.
The backdrops I’ve been seeing on TV these past couple of days, particularly those sweeping shots from the helicopter of luminous green dales, stone walls and old farmsteads, are absolutely stunning. I’d no idea. I think I have found a new place to tour, or at least to aspire to go touring. But then, I suppose that’s why the tourism folks in Yorkshire were so happy to host Le Tour.
As someone who slam-banged the ligaments in his right shoulder last winter, I felt a strong empathy for Mark Cavendish when he crashed heavily on his right shoulder (and at far, far greater speed!) during the sprint finish Saturday. Watching I found myself wincing, absently rubbing my shoulder in sympathy and recalling that gruesome smack of human flesh on asphalt. Very nice to hear that nothing is broken, but it was hardly a surprise to find that he was not up for continuing the race. I sure don’t envy him the rehab.
As we all know the slow pace of a bicycle is ideal for seeing all those captivating details in the landscape or street-scape that are all too easily missed when you travel by car or bus: those little flickering human vignettes you see unfolding down side streets and in doorways as you pass by, the architectural fine points in buildings and houses, theatre bills, historical plaques, ornamental ironwork, flower beds and fruit stalls.
Lately, thanks to a story I have been working on in London, of which more later, I have taken to looking up when I walk along city streets and discovering an elaborate new world that exists above the retail line. Obviously you need to be a little careful about gawking like this on a bicycle in traffic, but on my early morning spins through Hastings I have been finding all sorts of interesting things that have been slipping by me all these years – like this rainbow row of Victorian houses at the bottom of Elphinstone Road whose facades are just being warmed by the morning sun.
They say that walking is meant to be the best exercise – low impact, easy to do, generally good for your heart and circulation, and what’s more it burns nearly as many calories as running. It is also inexpensive, requiring no equipment to speak of – not even shoes, really, if you happen to be dong your walking on a nice sandy beach. I like walking, although as exercise I never really rated it. It wasn’t strenuous enough to make me feel ‘fitter’ afterwards, or as though I had done anything much in the way of exercise. And to be fair for long periods my life I routinely did strenuous exercise – serious running, fencing, badminton, and cycling – enough so that a few miles of walking here and there was hardly going to be noticed.
Because I have done a lot of sports and fitness-type things ever since I was a kid and continued to do so in a fairly intensive way right through young adulthood and into my thirties, I have more or less formed a view of myself as a reasonably fit person, even when I was no longer quite so diligent about exercise. That happy vision of myself unaccountably remains, like the Cheshire cat’s smile after the body vanishes. True, the Gumby-like flexibility I once enjoyed, days where I could perform the splits, front or side, or palm the floor and put my face on my shins, has long since lapsed and I am aware that I need to do something about my flexibility (starting tomorrow… or maybe next Monday…or…)
And although I have not been riding nearly as much as I would have liked this past year, I do get out on my bicycle reasonably regularly and I know that I could get up from the desk right now and go for a fifty mile ride with no unpleasant after affects. And so I think of myself as fairly fit.
The past few months though I have had a few little inklings that perhaps vanity might be playing mind tricks here (I know, I know, how unusual for that to happen to a nearly 56 year-old man) It started when I began walking up to my daughter Ella’s school to meet her and walk her home – my wife being away with the car. The school is two miles away – that four to me, round trip, and two to Ella. I began noticing it the first week. Just different muscles, thinks I, as I plodded away, and sure enough within a fortnight my cycling legs had adapted themselves to this literal change of pace.
This week – Wednesday – with the sun shining broadly I decided to take a day away from my computer and go for a long walk around the town with my camera gear slung on my shoulder. I loaded up a DSLR camera body and four lenses in my camera bag, put on my trusty panama hat and his the trail, full of jaunty expectancy. I had a very pleasant day of it even if the light didn’t cooperate very much photographically. I walked about fifteen miles down through Alexandra Park, around the town, along the seafront, up East Hill and West, back home again in time to whip up a healthy banana smoothie (and drop off the heavy camera bag) before I had to head off to the school to meet Ella.
I mowed the lawn afterwards too.
Then found myself becoming unaccountably sleepy that evening. I went to bed around the same time as the kids and while I felt fine the next morning, my legs felt fifteen years older. As a result my creaky self has been inspired to do a little more on the fitness front than I have been lately, incorporating walking more fully into my routine and maybe even graduating to proper running during the coming winter months, on dark blustery mornings when I wouldn’t care to go out on my bicycle. At the very least I have come to a new – or rather, belated – appreciation of walking. It really does count as exercise – just like cycling. How about that?
I broke from my routine yesterday and went for a spin in the low light of evening rather than before sunrise – and what a lovely change that made: Hastings by twilight. I felt as though I were rediscovering the place, or seeing it for the first time. Being the early riser that I am I tend not just to go to bed early but pretty much draw the shutters after dinner – maybe sit out in the back garden, but otherwise go nowhere. Certainly I am never out and about at ten o-clock in the evening, which is when dusk falls here in mid-summer. It was a revelation.
I was clued into the fact that it might be an interesting novelty when I went up East Hill the other night (on foot) to get photos of the Old Town. By the time I got down from East Hill it was going on for eleven o’clock and the magical quality of the dusk light was gone. So I went back last night, bringing my DSLR, three lenses and, instead of using my travel tripod, contrived a way to lash my larger, heavier, sturdier Manfrotto 055 tripod onto the rear rack. And off I went.
It was wonderful – coloured lights along the seafront promenade, and the art deco Marine Court bathed in turquoise blue floodlights. The sea was as still as glass, its deep velvety blue colour melding seamlessly into the heavy violet-blue of the horizon. There was just enough people around to give the seafront a sense of life, and of long warm summer evenings being enjoyed, but nothing even close to a crowd. And it was still far too early for the rowdies and drunks to be out. It was perfect – the embodiment of long-ago summers and dimly remembered childhood moments. I spent a good hour and a half tooling along the promenade, soaking up the ambiance, marvelling at the subtleties of the fast shifting twilight, setting up my tripod, taking pictures and enjoying the novelty of seeing Hastings afresh, feeling like a tourist in my own town. I will certainly be back.
I had company on my ride the other day – my eleven-year-old daughter Ella, who was out for a spin for the first time on a road bike. We went about eight miles along the seafront. She had been reading, wistfully, in her beloved Enid Blyton novels about kids going off on adventures on their bicycles and wanted very much to have some of that going-places adventure in her own life. How well I remember the feeling – not from Enid Blyton books in my case; I had other stories informing my childhood, but the longing was just the same.
In my day of course, the 60s and 70s, the world was a vastly different place: slower, more gentle-of pace, and less perception of danger. And less danger in reality too since there were far fewer cars around. The types of independent childhood adventures Ella reads about in the 1950s-vintage Enid Blyton stories were very real, very do-able back then. There was nothing fictional about it. My brother and I would mount our trusty Schwinns and set off on our own to go places and do things, often many miles away from home. Nobody thought anything of it.
It’s not like that nowadays – and more’s the pity. Given the dangers, both perceived and real, to children and novice cyclists on the mean streets of 21st century Hastings, Ella is obliged to have her old man tag along on her adventures. I wish it could be otherwise, for her sake. Speaking selfishly, for myself, I love being along for the ride, and being reminded of my own excitement at those first tentative taste of independence, the thrill of being abroad in the great wide world on my bicycle, and all the delicious plans that began forming in my mind.
When we stopped for ice cream along the seafront, near the old town in Hastings, she looked off to towards Beachy Head, soft and purple with distance, and asked how far it would be to ride over there and back. Sixty miles or so, I said. She nodded and smiled, and continued to gaze into the distance, the little wheels in her mind beginning to spin.