December 2017 Update

Merry Christmas to all my followers. As the blog goes in reverse order, I thought I’d repeat the Intro page here so anyone new to the site might have a clue of what it was about !

6 months on and I’ve hardly been on a bike since the Journey, but still keeping fit in other ways. GrumpsLifeJourney2 is already in planning, but probably for 2019

Why did I do it ?

In 2016 I was treated for prostate cancer, and having fully recovered, I wanted to do something to celebrate this and reaching 60.

I am constantly impressed by stories of people doing incredible journeys in exotic places – but I thought it might be nice to keep it local and minimise my carbon footprint. Although there were a fair number of stops that have life connections, a lot of the route was new to me, and I discovered some interesting new places too.

The Route

I decided to follow canals, partly because of strong links to my childhood and hopefully being a bit easier and safer – which by good fortune has turned out to be helpful for about half the route.

Route map

Starting from my home of 27 years near Alton Hants, to Reading (where I worked), then along the Kennet and Avon Canal to Bath and Bristol, (where my wife and I studied and my youngest son Ben lives). Then along the Severn Valley to Gloucester and Worcester, branching off through the Black Country and Birmingham (which has work connections and visiting my cousin). From there down the Grand Union Canal via Warwick (where I worked) to visit my sister, then across to Cambridge, (where we last lived, to stay with friends). My eldest son joins me from there, cycling to Hitchin – where he was born – then on to Harpenden and Hemel Hempstead, (where we lived in our 20’s). Again, along the Grand Union – this time North, to Aylesbury and North Marston, (from where my father’s side of the family originates). Finally to a village near Leighton Buzzard, where I was born, to visit family and old haunts.

The Charities

I have decided to keep the charity page open into 2019, as a number of organisations have asked me to give a talk about Grumps Life Journey

The three charities I am supporting are shown on the site, and I hope you think they are worthwhile. Although Prostate Cancer UK were a fantastic support, I felt that I really wanted to raise money for charities that support younger people, and these have a particular relevance to my past life and interests.

Grandad Grumps’ Life Journey for multiple charities on MyDonate

Advertisements

Day 20 (and 21) : Full Spiral (the Last Post)

My charity pot has grown to over £2000, thanks to the generosity of friends, relatives and people along the route. The site will stay open for donations until 2019, so if you haven’t had chance to then please bung a few quid in the direction of the three great causes 

https://mydonate.bt.com/fundraisers/stevegregory60

It would be out of character for me to take the direct route back to Linslade, particularly as there’s a section of the canal I need to travel, with some precious memories.

My Winslow host Jude is another lovely AirBnB person, who has made her house my home for the brief visit. She tips me off that there’s a great cycle track all the way to Bletchley and shows me some of her newly discovered artistic talent …P1150371

… but first a quick tour of Winslow.

The oldest roads follow an east/west route and are the earthily-named Horn Street and Sheep Street, where there are some lovely old cottages …

Amongst these is the incongruous pile of Winslow Hall, only set back slightly from the road and built in 1700. Some suggestion that it is Wren’s work, but I can’t think that someone of such talent could have conceived such overbearing chimneys. Still, they apparently didn’t put off the Blair’s, who at one point were rumoured to be seriously interested (useful for venting hot air ?). It is now a posh opera venue …

P1150379-Edit

On a quiet Wednesday morning in rural Buckinghamshire, there’s nothing so inspiring as ‘a girl my Lord in a flat-bed Ford slowing down to take a look at me’, so I set about finding the cycle route, before I become even more delusional (a clue to this riddle to follow). It’s downhill from here along Route 51 from Oxford to Cambridge. The landscape flattens out north of here onto heavy Oxford Clay. In the 50s and 60’s the area was peppered with brickworks, owned by the London Brick company, such as nearby Newton Longville. When the wind occasionally blew the wrong way, the air in our town smelled of  bad-eggs from the SO2 all day. All the brickworks are long gone and over the same period, Milton Keynes has grown from a tiny village to a city of a quarter of a million people. Along with Cambridge, it is the fastest growing city in the UK…

P1150382

National Cycle Route 51 loosely follows the old Varsity Line which used to link Oxford and Cambridge. Jude mentioned the topiary at the remote Swanbourne station and good thing too: I wouldn’t have spotted it otherwise. Reg Waters has lived there since 1947 with his brother (I guess their dad must have been the station master) …

The railway is now being brought back into use and Reg thrusts a consultation brochure and map into my hand, before I depart. These horseriders will soon have to find somewhere else to exercise…

P1150410

The air is still and cool after last night’s thunderstorm and I have the cycle track to myself. This dead tree, when I arrived contained five buzzards, or were they red kites, or perhaps Eagles? Around 1972 I purchased a Practica SLR film camera from the proceeds of a summer job and then the following year, a long lens – from which began an interest in bird photography. These masters of the sky, slope off one-by-one, briskly but not hurrying, so by the time I’ve fired up my pocket digital device and zoomed in, they are all gone …P1150427

… but not far …P1150429

I wonder if the proud owner of this old organ mastered Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in G minor, then got bored …

On the edge of Bletchley, this guy doesn’t speak a word of English and I certainly can’t understand him … but I do like his bike …P1150433

The town was never pretty, and has now been subsumed into Milton Keynes, so cycle routes abound. The upper viaduct here is where the Varsity Line swings north to the station with links into the London – Birmingham mainline, then east again, and on towards Bedford and Cambridge …P1150437

It used to be a prominent feature at the end of the main  shopping street (Queensway), but once again, the planners have shown no respect for the old through route, so I become disoriented about where the town centre has gone. This is what remains of the the main street as it passes through the new shopping centre (which doesn’t seem to impress the locals) …

… finally emerging into something that looks more familiar and smile-worthy …

I then seek out the Grand Union at Fenny Stratford.

The shape of Grumps Life Journey is best described as a spiral and on this last leg of the canal, I am only 20 miles from Moulton, (where on Day 13 I photographed Rob , several times, walking in front of two holly trees). With the extended time needed to complete the blog, it feels like an eternity since Nick and I left Medstead on 30th June and perhaps an ever decreasing circle is an appropriate metaphor. So close to finishing now, and no time to reflect further. …P1150449

Going south along the towpath, now entering very familiar territory, distances become ever more compressed as memories intensify. Suddenly the greensand ridge of Great Brickhill appears to my left and the Three Locks ahead. Sand and gravel were extracted locally for major building projects in the Midlands and Greater London, and transported up and down the canal by horse-drawn barges

I’m now back within my range, my territory from over forty years ago …P1150461

When I worked at Wyvern Shipping in Linslade, the Saturday boys were tasked with cleaning the outside of the boats, checking oil and water and turning them round. Then in the afternoons we accompanied the new customers, showing them the ropes and how not to sink a boat by dropping it onto the lock sill (the girls worked mornings only, cleaning the insides – this was the Seventies). For a seventeen year old, this job from heaven – with tea and fruit cake thrown in – finished at the Three Locks pub, where we of course drank lemonade (my nose just grew longer). So obviously today I have to stop for a sherbet…

… the extra inlet in the foreground above is all that remains of a parallel set of three narrow locks – such was the volume of traffic on this section – a sort of canal dual-carriageway

As ever the Grand Union has the busy Euston line in close attendance …P1150490

Some light drizzle dampens the mood a little progressing down to Old Linslade, where there is a winding point (wider section for boat turning) with a special story. In the 13th century this village was big enough to have a weekly market and annual eight day charter fair. It also was a site of pilgrimage on account of its holy spring – which is thought to now lie in this wider part of the canal …P1150496

However, the village did not possess the political nous of John Schorne and his successors, and fell foul of the church authorities in 1299 who discredited the shrine. It then fell into decay and is now little more than a church, a manor house and a couple of houses. The church, now disused, is made of the local sandstone, and a number of my mothers family are buried in the graveyard …P1150507

The Linslade where I was born is the newer settlement a mile or so further, on the Buckhamshire side of the canal adjacent to Leighton Buzzard. The fact that they subsequently moved the county boundary to lassoo Linslade in with Leighton and Bedfordshire is irrelevant – I was born in Bucks !

Just around another bend on the other side of the canal is Sandy Banks, where we used to lose ourselves as kids, fishing, building camps in the bracken, pitching our tents for the day. Now very overgrown and someone has recently cut a muddy track through – so a bit disappointing …P1150508

Opposite, Joanna is parked up with her Dutch service boat, complete with ships lifeboat in tow. “It’s for the kids, when they get bored” she says intriguingly. “we’ve been out of the Thames estuary, but its a bit dangerous. We got stuck on  Goodwin Sands”. Bonkers, or what ? …P1150513

Just above this tranquil spot is Tunnel Hill where we would watch trains being swallowed by a castle, to be disgorged at the other side, just short of Leighton Buzzard station (mis-named as it is in Linslade) …P1150517

The Globe pub is putting on a David Bowie tribute lunch …P1150519

And as for the Linslade village sign; why could these warnings not be placed 50 yards back up the road ? A final permissible rant : Based on a random sample during the trip, I can confidently report that the ‘street safety jobsworths’ are completely out of control and ruining a large number of our settlement boundaries with safety clutter, placed cheek-by-jowl with traditional and welcoming town signs . Rant ends.P1150521

At the Martins Drive is still the stone igloo that we used to play in. It’s actually an old cold store for the adjacent haunted (we believed) house and amazing it wasn’t demolished as a safety hazard years ago.

The fishing holes along Bossington Lane are now overgrown. In our day, being the nearest bit of canal to our houses, here the earth was beaten bare from countless children with a chaos of fishing tackle, hooking out gudgeon, perch and grayfish, while we contemplated the life-cycle of maggots. How could these wriggling things transform into hard shells full of mush which then became flies ? On the other side of the lane backing onto gardens of Lime Grove and The Paddocks, were several perfect trees for climbing and building tree camps. The residents tolerated the climbing, but when our construction work became too ambitious, commissioned the local bully to dismantle them.P1150560

Once railways became established in the 1850’s many canals began a steady decline, although some maintained commercial traffic for just about a century more. Wyvern Shipping in Linslade was established in 1953 as a carrying company, but by the early 60’s had switched entirely to holiday hire boats. It is still run by the Griffin family, now the two sons, who I knew there as a boy. James and John are away on their respective boats, but have left me free reign to have a look around. They now have an impressive fleet of 38 narrowboats – most of them out earning their keep

Rob, Steve and Terry having a break in the boat building and repair dock …

P1150538P1150744

I have written to the current occupant of my original home in Linslade and he has kindly agreed to give me a quick look around. Matthew, in his twenties, who shows me around, was also brought up here. The house was built for my parents in 1952 and cost £2000 (when salaries were about £500 pa!), although it has been considerably extended since then. We compare notes about the tobogganing virtues of a nice steep garden in winter.P1150581

Here is a picture of Matthew helping with construction works on the extension they built a number of years ago …

img002

As I cycle away, just around the corner in the strangely named road called ‘Golden Riddy’, is undoubtedly the most astonishing sight for me today. There it is, parked on someone’s drive, an exact example of my best friends family car from the sixties . John belonged to a very large Catholic family and we all used to go on picnic outings with Mrs T driving their enormous Zephyr 4, wearing open-toed sandals, six or more kids crammed onto bench seats and no safety belts. Happy days …P1150571

I also remember our first car – a Vauxhall Victor 101 and recall the long sickly trips along winding ‘A’ roads and through congested town centres, before motorways and bypasses came. Now love them or hate them, we take motorways for granted. As Ronnie Barker once said “You can now travel all day without going anywhere.”

And this is it, in front of the house where I was born …img578

 

—–oooooOOOOOooooo—–

 

The following day I clock up another 15 miles rediscovering the town and my old school, which takes my total trip distance to over 1000 km / 625 miles (give or take a short boat and car ride).

50 years ago the population of Leighton-Linslade (at the end of the baby boom) had grown to 28,000. It is now heading towards 42,000 – 50% bigger – by the end of the decade. As with many of our towns, the old centre is an attractive oasis in a sea of traffic, relief roads and sprawling estates …

Leighton Middle School, which is in the lovely grounds of an old town mansion, is being extensively expanded, as there is a new baby boom, coming through to secondary age.

While age takes away many things, it might bestow on us a greater sense of perspective. The canal mania period also lasted a mere 50 years and carved through large parts of rural and urban England with previously unimagined cuts of  gleaming water. In the last 50 or so years, motorways have done the same thing, but with rivers of tarmac and concrete.

This journey has brought me home, but has also brought home to me the huge changes that have affected the landscape of my part of England in half a century. The legacy of canals has been in tourism and – increasingly of late – a fast-growing community of houseboats, their owners seeking an alternative lifestyle or somewhere affordable to live.

And the stark contrast between canal and street life. Down on the canal, all is tranquil, slow moving, contemplative, on occasions brooding or even sinister. Yet when surfacing at street level, literally yards away, the brash noise, rushing traffic and raw aggression can catch you unawares.

My home town is no exception to this. Approaching the Town Bridge by canal is quiet and rural, but this same bridge crossing  is a major traffic bottleneck, between Leighton and Linslade …P1150749

The most heart-warming memories of this inspiring adventure have undoubtedly been the encounters with people, both planned and unexpected. Dipping my toe into their lives for an evening or just a few minutes. Everyone has a story.

I have certainly rekindled my love of canals this summer and discovered a new passion in cycle touring. Also, a healthy respect for blogging – which has been harder than expected. Hopefully it has entertained and informed, although at times it has felt terribly self-indulgent. I’m most grateful to the small band who have doggedly stuck with me until the end : it is most helpful to feel you are chatting to a friend.

Here are just a few more canal pics, taken coming into Linslade …

I finish the final day having a celebration supper with some relatives and Angela who has kindly driven up from Hampshire to recover me and my bike …P1150757

My charity pot has grown to over £2000, thanks to the generosity of friends, relatives and people along the route. The site will stay open for donations until 2019, so if you haven’t had chance to then please bung a few quid in the direction of the three great causes 

https://mydonate.bt.com/fundraisers/stevegregory60

Some have implied that I have been quite virtuous in raising all this money, but it is not so. The charity bit was the happy by-product of a lifelong ambition to do a big cycle ride.

In truth, I have been having the time of my life.

Steve 1961

(c) Steve Gregory MMXVII

 

 

 

Day 19 : Roots

Leighton Buzzard is less than ten miles from North Marston, but somehow, despite living there for 18 years, I was never to visit this tiny village laced with so much of my family’s history. It gives the first impression of  sleepy place with just a few bits of infill housing, but retaining the shape and dimensions of a ‘typical’ English village, with its roots in farming. However with Milton Keynes and several other towns not far away, like so many villages, much of its working residents must be commuters. Leaving my panniers at the AirBnB at Winslow is a joy and I fly up the short hilly road linking the villages, feeling like I’m on rocket fuel …

I am due to meet John Spargo of the North Marston History Club. This remarkable little organisation has recently compiled a village history, which is literary (sic.) an inch thick [  I have paraphrased some bits of information from this document below and in doing so, may have strayed from historical authenticity a little]. John takes me to the newly opened Wesley Centre, where I am introduced to Janet Gowin and Jennifer  Horwood over a cup of tea. The hall was originally the Wesleyan Methodist chapel, which the Gregory and particularly the Bates branches of my father’s family attended …

P1150147

Opposite lives one of the more senior residents of the village and a visit has been arranged to chat to Mona and her granddaughter Jane, about the intertwined family histories of this small village. Mona Holden who is well into her nineties, has a razor-sharp memory and recounts how my great aunt Lucy, who she knew well as a girl, lived out at Crandon Farm, over a mile from the village.  They  both worked seven days a week at a munitions factory in Whitchurch during the war, walking the four mile round trip in all weathers and at night, on top of a twelve hour shift. We have a delightful rambling conversation trying to work out half-remembered connections between the Gregory, Bates, Holden, Cheshire and Stephens families, which triggers many more anecdotes from Mona, which I am glad I recorded for future listening …

P1150145Back at the hall, Jennifer has returned in her car with Rosemary Morton, who’s family still farm the land around the village and who presents me with some fascinating sheets documenting the history of the Bates family at Crandon Farm. They include an embroidery of the farm’s fields by Chloe Percy …

Crandon fields by Chloe Percy

Rosemary with an aerial photograph of Crandon taken in the sixties …

P1150164P1150158-2

We drive out to the farm, as the current owners have kindly allowed us to look around. All those years I wrote Christmas cards to Lucy at ‘Crandon’, the small cottage in Aylesbury, not realising that it was named after this place with 75 years of Bates family history. My great granddad Bates sold the farm after the war and moved with Lucy to the cottage, which must have been a major downsizing experience …

Crandon Pano (17)

Although the house is now being extended,  the porch at the front is pretty much in its original state and features in many old family photos …

This picture at the front porch on 7th July 1930. In the centre is my great great granddad Phillips with his daughter Julia and her husband Arthur Bates – my great grandparents. The Bates family had been tenants at the farm from 1868. Arthur bought the farm at the end of WWI an farmed there until he sold it at the end of WWII …GG Bates & GGG Phillips 1930

Two pictures of my Dad in 1929 and with his younger brother Ken and my Nana in around 1937, outside Crandon farmhouse …

My Dad used to go out there as a boy in the summer and help out with the harvest and hay-making – all done with horsepower and human sweat. the pics below are all from around 1929, my Dad being the toddler in the first one …

Philip Bates and Don Gregory May 21st 1931 SBHaymaking at Crandon June 29th 1931 SBGerald & GGGdd Phillips 1929

The younger man in the last picture is Gerald who subsequently moved to Cowroast [see Day 18].

On the way back from the farm, Rosemary points out some willows, being grown by her family for Gray Nichols the cricket bat manufacturer…

P1150200

John then takes me on a walking tour of the village, which starts with its most notable curiosity – the Schorne Well. North Marston was one of the top three destinations in mediaeval times, in the fiercely competitive pilgrimage industry. Legend says that around 1300, the village rector John Schorne struck a stone with his staff, causing a spring of high quality mineral water with medicinal properties, to gush forth. This triggered the start of a highly lucrative tourism business, which saw the village benefit for at least two centuries. At the end of this period even Henry VIII visited twice, attempting to cure his gout. The Schorne Well now has a hand pump and other modern additions, such as the Devil who appears out of a boot if you pump hard enough (The  traditional diagnosis of gout being ‘the devil in your boots’) …

P1150214

One of the most dominant buildings in the centre of the village was built in the 19th century for the tailoring business of the Holden family and is called Shakespeare House. For a village of this size, Holdens became a major employer and John explains that a lot of their trade was selling hunting silks and other high quality attire to the leisure-seeking London aristocracy – who would visit the area for “hunting, shooting and wenching”. The frieze has bricks inscribed with family initials below and the exhibition case is in the Wesleyan Centre …

After looking at many more interesting buildings, John deposits me at the community shop, where Polly and Eddie sell me some sandwiches and I sit outside and wait for things to happen … which they do …

P1150246

First up is Paul Gillet, who is keen to talk about his Keeble car which hails from none-other than Eastleigh (Angela’s home town). Later he tracks me down, sporting a photo …

P1150285

Then Alison Finnemore, chair of the shop committee drops by and we get talking … and she takes an interest in my journey and links to the village … and it turns out that her husband has some maps and records of the parish I might want to see.  So I arrange to visit them later in the afternoon …

P1150253

I then head off on my own exploration (not quite alone, as John catches me up on his bike and thrusts a ‘tour of the village map’ in my hand to assist my wanderings). First stop is Portway the road South out of the village, where I know the Gregory family had a cottage. I have been tipped off that what looks like the front lobby of the Peartree B&B is actually the whole cottage where my great grandad Septimus and his wife Clara lived. Sue at the B&B kindly lets me look at the inside, where it is only the chimney that gives away its cottage origins …

Next door is another cottage that was owned by the Gregorys which is thought to be the one in the rather poor quality picture below. The modern extension is known affectionately in the village as ‘the Crematorium’. The people in the old picture are probably Joseph and Mary Gregory, my great great great grandparents … and I wish I could remember who had the original photo which must have been taken in the 19th century …P1150272Portway Cottage

All family tree investigations end up in the churchyard sooner or later, and Janet Gowin (who I met this morning) tracks me down with uncanny timing, just as I arrive there. She has lived here all her life and as a mainstay of the church is equipped with a complete plan of the graveyard …

P1150307

We soon find Septimus and Clara’s gravestone, but also the memorial of Susan Stevens – our old milk lady from Linslade and a distant relative. I admit to Jane a slight pang of emotion as she is someone who I actually remember –  a cheerful ruddy-faced girl, always smiling, dressed in brown overalls and a headscarf, busy at her van, lugging crates of gold-top, always in a hurry …

Jane also gives me a tour of the church. The main stained glass window is dedicated to Queen Victoria, who funded it. And well she should, because the village miser John Camden Neild left all his considerable wealth to the royal family, which helped them a lot with the construction of Balmoral Castle …

P1150326

Before leaving I notice a hassock, made in commemoration of the Wellington bomber which crashed in nearby fields in 1945 (also the subject of a display case at the Wesleyan Centre). The pilot was just 21 and on a training flight – a reminder of how this area was important for RAF training and that significant numbers of accidents added to the death toll during the war …

There is too much more for me to document everything about this extraordinary day, but it was not over yet ! I turn up at the appointed hour at Alison and Michael Finnemore’s and spend the next five hours absorbed in his copies of parish records, plans of field boundaries and his own particular interest – the Enclosures Act…

These kind people, who again I had just met by chance,  share supper with me when time is getting on, then when a huge thunderstorm rumbles up from the South, Michael insists on putting my bike in the back of his Volvo and drives me back to Winslow

 

 

 

Day 18 : Aylesbury Ducks

Back down to the Grand Union, continuing north today, will bring me into the heart of Gregory family territory. It was never a particular aim of Grumps Life Journey to research family history, but for the remainder of the trip I hope to uncover some glimpses into interesting bits of my wider family. On my father’s side there are many connections with the Aylesbury area and in particular, a small village called North Marston, which I shall visit for the first time tomorrow.

The canal leaving Hemel is accompanied by the main London to Birmingham railway. At most times it is close enough that the frequent sound of trains dashing past, drums in a constant reminder of the threat they became. Ironically the canal was used extensively to transport the materials used in the construction of its nemesis …

P1140995

At Winkwell Lock, my first Wyvern Shipping boat, unusually travelling south from Leighton Buzzard. I used to work for them as a Saturday boy and  most customers went north into more interesting parts of the canal network. Helen and Paul have decided to explore this way and meet up with relatives in Hemel …

Any ideas for a suitable caption for this one ?  …

P1150011

I decided not to share my more nuanced views of graffiti artists with this volunteer clean-up team, owning to the proximity of the canal …

P1150013

The Port of Berkhamsted a major hub on the Grand Junction Canal. The section from London to here was completed by William Jessop in 1798. In those days, weak beer was consumed by navvies as it was risky to drink untreated water. These days. weak beer is being sold to cyclists etc …

P1150019

In the affluent town centre, a gentleman introduces himself as ‘Denis the Menace’, but seems to know everyone passing and gets them all smiling …

Near to the station, a reminder of the changing cultural tastes, further out into the provinces …

P1150022

In 1967, aged 10, I started a bizarre year of education, commuting over 30 miles on the train, to be immersed in a public school with cloisters, boarding houses and prep-school boys with cut-glass accents all speaking a different language. Words like ‘KV’ when a teacher was approaching and ‘Treadye’ when scrounging sweets at the tuck shop were as alien to me as the  ‘Amo, amas, amant’ drummed into us by the Latin teacher. Letting off steam while waiting for the train, we day boys undoubtedly drove the station staff here to distraction. For the avoidance of doubt the trains by then were all electric …

P1150021

It’s term time, so only a couple of pics possible of the school buildings which look pretty much unchanged … The small building is the music school where I began a long and undistinguished career trying to master the trombone …

Fifty years ago, it has to be said, the school had a bullying problem. As a taller-than-average lad from a council school, I was a prime target – but was certainly not alone. One of the worst offenders was a particular older boy, who shall rename nameless. During our Friday school assemblies, (in the school hall shown here) we always finished singing ‘Jerusalem’. Suffice to say that my fellow victims and I always belted out the phrase ‘dark satanic mills’ with extra gusto …

P1150043

Back on the canal Richard has a very smart boat with newly-fitted solar panels and bemoans the canal authorities who keep hounding him to move on or lose his ‘continuous cruiser’ discount …

Cowroast lock is at a small hamlet of the same name, thought to be a corruption of ‘cow rest’, as it was on a major cattle droving route. I discover my great uncle Gerald’s old house there , now extended and having a neighbour with a rather worrying pastime …

P1150052P1150057

Up on the Chilterns ridge above the nearby village of Albury is a huge monumental column to the 3rd Duke of Bridgewater who owned the Ashridge Estate and also lots of coal mines in the north-west. Shame he wasn’t ever an admiral …

P1150055

He is credited for starting the 50 year long canal-building mania in 1761 after commissioning the Bridgewater canal – connecting from his collieries to Manchester. He had an unsuccessful engagement to society ‘It Girl’, Elizabeth Lady Hamilton who happened to be born in the Old Manor at Hemingford Grey, which happens to be where Dick and Molly dropped me off from their boat and a dog-walker happened to point it out [Quick flashback to Day 14 ] …

Beyond Cowroast and the canal summit is Tring Cutting (30′ deep and 1.5 miles long), which traverses the ridge of the Chilterns and in its day was a major feat of civil engineering for men and horse-power …

Bulbourne Yard is another notable canal historic site, where the engineering works constructed and maintained lock gates. It is also where the short Wendover Arm branches off (and I nearly take a wrong turn but am saved by Kevin and Sue who point out my error ) …

As we emerge from the Chilterns, pass Tring reservoirs which store water to supply the whole canal going north ( I used to go bird watching here with my Dad)…

P1150084

I am accosted by the ‘Mums on Bikes’ from Watford, who claim they’re lost, but I think they just wanted their photo in GrumpsLifeJourney …P1150086

As usual I am running late, this time for a lunch appointment and when I reach the junction with the Aylesbury Arm, things go downhill. This is a narrow canal and unusually for this area, the first two locks are of the staircase design. (ie water from the top lock empties directly into the lower). The 16 locks which descend into the Vale of Aylesbury for a few miles beyond, nearly all have steps to lug my bike down and a low bridge afterwards to duck under. Lugs and ducks making progress even slower, and ducks eat slugs, which has nothing to do with this sentence at all …

IMG_2661

P1150091

I’m really late now, but cannot resist some shots of some derelict barges, broken dreams that lie alongside this quiet backwater …

P1150095P1150096

Eventually track down my father’s cousin Kathleen’s house on the edge of the town. She and her husband David have been waiting patiently, but her son Stephen has had to return to work (more on this below). Kathleen is a Gregory family history expert and shows me some of her database …

P1150099

Returning to the canal, past some highly organised graffiti, I complete the trip to the centre.  Here the canal basin has been extensively redeveloped and guess who’s been here before me. Big disappointment though , not a single Aylesbury duck in sight – probably all trussed up and for sale in Waitrose chiller cabinets by now) …

P1150101P1150102

Aylesbury Basin

Also couldn’t find much evidence of why Disraeli is promoting the virtues of banking in the town centre. He did give a speech here once about farming, but his country pile was in South Bucks near Beaconsfield. However, Ronnie Barker joined the Aylesbury Rep., making his acting debut here in 1948, at the old County Theatre (not this one which was opened in 2010)  …

P1150108-Edit

The Grade II listed Bucks County Hall was completed in ’66, when I was 9 and could be seen from miles around. Controversial at the time, the top floor of ‘Fred’s Folly’ (named after the architect) was known for having the best views in the county (principally because that was the only place for about twenty miles where you couldn’t actually see it) …

P1150111

I manage to find my great aunt Lucy’s house which was called ‘Crandon’ and where she lived with my great grandfather Arthur Bates, after moving from North Marston. We used to visit them and had much fun making a racket on their treadle-powered harmonium, complete with stops like ‘trumpet’, ‘flute’ and ‘vox celeste’. Here also is an old picture of Great Grandad in the garden with Yours Truly from 1957…

Owing to my lateness for lunch, David hatched a plan for me to divert via his son’s business near Bierton and another great detour it turns out to be. Stephen has built up his own high-tech company specialising in 3D Printing – a development of the CADCAM (Computer Aided Design & Manufacture) industry I was involved with in Cambridge in the 80’s. Here, one of his designers uses a CAD system to develop a 3D model which can then be ‘printed’ using an incredible machine that builds a component by stacking ultra-thin layers. A bit like the cardboard contour map models we used to make at school. Stephen’s son is just starting work there as an novice …

My adjusted route to Winslow takes me past a lesser-known and rather neglected monument. The exiled government of Czechoslovakia were billetted in the area during the war and President Benes apparently felt sympathy for the people of the local villages shivering at the crossroads in winter, while waiting for the bus …

There’s not a lot to say today about Cublington, apart from it being equidistant from Wing and Whitchurch. However in 1971 it was recommended by the Roskhill Commission as the site for London’s third airport. Fortunately the proposal was rejected, but not before the whole area was galvanised into resistance with slogans such as ‘Wings off Wing’.  As I slog to the top of a little used road towards Winslow, I am left panting and pondering how on earth they could have flattened such an undulating landscape…

After finishing GrumpsLifeJourney, my Dad was to relate a story where he believes that this was probably the gated road where Grandad Gregory and my Nana attempted, what sounds like a Steve McQueen motorbike stunt from the Great Escape. Even during my childhood, I remember many roads in the area were still gated, (as there were no hedges and livestock could wander across them). Apparently at the bottom of the hill, braking too late, he rode the motorbike, Nana riding pillion,  straight through the gate, but fortunately it crashed open and no serious damage was caused to rider or passenger, for which I need to be eternally grateful …

Eric Gregory compr

Day 17: Five H’s

It’s Sunday and Jonny is riding with me as far as Harpenden, then on to his in-laws in Rickmansworth. We leave Hitchin via the town square where Alex, Veronica and Dan emerge from an alleyway. Out for their Sunday MTB blast, they are interested in our expedition …

The road from Hitchin to Harpenden is rural and undulating, passing through some posh real estate, such as St Pauls Walden, birthplace of the late Queen Mum. Jonny spots this sign that shows just how pressured the property market is around here …

P1140852

…and then a sinister figure, straight out of a scene from the Godfather …P1140856

Harpenden was the location of our first rental flat in 1978 and had the tagline ‘the place where wine is delivered with your milk’ (In context, wine in the 70’s was still seen as a luxury and was only just opening up to mass consumption – between 1980 and 2015 increasing its share from 15 to 35% of UK alcohol consumption) …

Some contrasting architecture in the town (which likes to call itself a ‘village’). Looks like they’ll be queuing around the block for this month’s edgy theatre production …

… and shops reflecting the affluence of this des-res community …

I was keen to find out what had become of Anscombes – the traditional department store which contained an amazing Lamson Rapid Wire Overhead Transport System.

The centralised cash system comprised overhead wires radiating out from the cash desk to each sales counter, along which metal carriers with detachable wooden cups were carried. Cash was tendered in one direction, change and receipts in the other.

The store was closed just a few years after we moved on from here and, in what seems to be an emerging theme, has now been replaced by a Waitrose store. (The pictures also show Anscombe’s house next door and Gavin – a lifelong Harpenden resident – who helped me locate the site) …

The Harpenden Village History records proudly ” Anscombe once created what was probably the longest queue of customers ever seen in Hertfordshire when he advertised the sale of net curtain material at a time when it was virtually unobtainable elsewhere”

Says it all really.

Jonny needs to crack on ahead, to be reunited with his family,  so we finish our coffee (from another Jonny’s 1975 Citroen wagon), then a quick man-hug and he’s gone …

The Nickey Line, an old single track rail link from Hemel to Harpenden carried amongst its goods straw plait for the Luton straw hat industry – hence the name ‘Hatters’ for Luton Town FC. Eric Morecambe was Harpenden’s most famous resident and an avid supporter of Luton. I once saw him an a shoe shop in the town, cracking jokes with the sales staff. The railway line is now a useful cycle route to Hemel, where I stop to chat with Lee, a Yorkshireman now living here …

The route passes through Redbourn village – an old settlement on Telford’s A5, before diving under the M1 …

Climbing steadily up the to one of Hemel Hempstead’s several surrounding hills the line delivers me to Woodhall Farm estate, another planned stop. In 1979 we bought our first flat here. Although Harpenden was far too expensive, we could just about afford one of these at the age of 22, both on salaries of about £3500 and costing £15,000. They now sell for about £200,000 and grad salaries in the South-East are around £25000. However interest rates and inflation were then running at about 15%.

The trees were saplings when we moved in; which makes you think …

P1140915P1140917

Many of the flats on the estate had their windows blown out in 2005, when the nearby Buncefield Oil Depot exploded, which rattled our doors 50 miles away in Medstead. Our own little drama was a tiff with a local crane driver who insisted on parking his huge lorry in the carpark at the back of our flat. When we complained the freeholder planted some ugly metal poles across the area to deny him access – and local historians please note that 38 years later they are still there, now covered in more attractive foliage …P1140912

Some of today’s residents, just off to a wedding …

P1140913

Hemel Hempstead was the nearest New Town to Leighton Buzzard and in the 60’s I was brought here as a boy and marvelled at the slick modern buildings, all concrete, glass, flat roofs and multi-storey carparks, in marked contrast to my home town. The main attraction was a ten-pin bowling alley which was very American and out-of-this-world for a provincial lad.

I have tried very hard during this Journey to keep a promise to myself, not to rant on tediously, Victor Meldrew style, about how everything has changed for the worse. However National Car Parks have severely tested this resolution. NCP originally made its fortune buying up old WWII bomb sites and it looks like they have decided to allow this iconic structure, to revert to one (at least someone has a sense of humour : Welcome to Hemel Hempstead) …

P1140922P1140925P1140924

The rest of the original new town has some nice reminders of its open pedestrian-friendly design and varied building styles, being being enjoyed by today’s citizens on a sunny Sunday afternoon …

At the bottom of the town is the Kodak Building – which of course has been redeveloped as flats, after Kodak was wiped out by the digital revolution. The company in 1996 was ranked the fourth most valuable brand in the United States but filed for bankrupcy in 2012. The elegant footbridge emerging from it and crossing the Leighton Buzzard Road, seems to lose the plot and tumble to the ground – perhaps an obit for a once great company …

Right next door, one is warned of another of Hemel’s famous residents …

Better known as the Magic Roundabout and vying with a similar one in Swindon to subject vehicles to a collective nervous breakdown …IMG_2645

IMG_2646

Too much excitement and traffic noise in the town centre is quickly resolved by picking up the Grand Union canal again – this time heading north …

P1140967

… and amongst the many houseboats, I soon come across Holly and Nick, renovating their Dutch barge and the same age that we were, when we first made our home in Hemel …

Then, yet another magical moment. I spot an obviously old butty boat (unpowered narrowboat originally towed by a horse, but then often tugged by a powered converted boat in pairs). Chatting to Daniel, it transpires that ‘Lyra’ was one of a pair operated by the Collier brothers from Leighton Buzzard, carrying bulk materials, including coal in the early 70’s. I have clear memories of seeing coal barges passing, while my friends and I were fishing in the canal near my home and one of them must have been Lyra …

P1140971P1140969

It is pleasing that Daniel is carrying on the tradition of making a living from the Lyra, offering bespoke metal fabrication, both general and artistic and here is a link plugging his business:

https://www.reveriecanaltradingco.co.uk/

Up a steep hill from the canal lives my nephew Matthew with Clair and little Timmy, where I am staying for the night. I was disinclined (sic.) to cycle up yet another of Hemel’s surrounding hills to meet his brother Chris and Keisha’s new baby Georgina , so Matt takes me there in his mean machine …

… and on this nice family note ends my tour of our previous homes in Hertfordshire: Harpenden, Hemel Hempstead and Hitchin.

 

Day 16 : Old Town to New Town

Another rest day and the gods have spotted that my bike is locked up for the day and so the rain has come again (so far I have only used my wet weather gear for half an hour !). I realised last night that the Journey has now passed 500 miles – my original target, with several days cycling still to go.

I’m pretty pooped after yesterdays long ride, so glad of a quiet amble around Jonny’s home town in the morning. We moved from here when he was one, and this is really his first visit.

Our short time living Hitchin was sufficient to grow a great affection for the place. Despite being commuter-belt, it is interesting, cosmopolitan and retains the feel of an old Market town – one of the oldest in Hertfordshire. The changes evident in the town centre – as with many in the country – are the steady move away from retail and a marked increase in coffee shops and restaurants. The town has been spared from the construction of any large shopping centre or out-of-town development, and as Stevenage is only five miles away I suspect this is where people go for serious shopping.

Henry Bessemer was born here and became one of the most influential and successful inventors later on in the Industrial Revolution. In particular the Bessemer process we learned about at school, that made steel quicker and cheaper to manufacture and revolutionised structural engineering …

IMG_2634IMG_2633

After looking around the pretty town square we seek refuge from the weather in the large church. Nothing particular to get excited about, although Warwick the church warden seems enthusiastic enough. There are some nice brasses and Henry Wood of Proms fame had his funeral here …

The rain clears, so we wonder up the hill to the South edge of town and Foster Drive – our first house and Jonathan’s first home. In the four years living there, we were both working full time and still managed to get through a huge list of DIY jobs including replacing kitchen, bathroom, painting all the woodwork, installing central heating and having our first baby. Where did we get the energy from ? …

After lunch, we jump on a bus to Stevenage (£6 each for an 11 mile round trip seems excessive). Before we moved to Cambridge, I worked for a funny little company in Stevenage Old Town called Compeda, my first venture into the IT industry. It was trying to market UK developed CAD software, but was soon swallowed up by American mini-computer company called Prime …

P1140808

Stevenage Old Town High Street looks like a typical old English high street, with mixed architectures each side of the main through-route. However, as you progress South towards the New Town, something odd happens : Up the ramp …

P1140810

… over the bridge, down the zig-zag ramp …P1140814

… and, well, yes this is the inauspicious end of the Great North Road in Stevenage …P1140815

For anyone interested in some archive footage of travelling the Great North Road (1939) and London to Bath (1963) the following are marvellous : the first illustrates how motoring in England before the war had not yet reached the masses, in the second, ‘Mr Jaguar’ gives the viewers a strict briefing on the skills of advanced motoring.

To be fair to Stevenage, it was the first of 29 New Towns to be built after the war, and I suppose the disconnect from the old reflected the brash optimism of post-war modernism.

The new centre, like most of the towns I have visited on this trip, is being extensively repaved. What is it about 2017 and repaving ? …

Stevenage is ‘famous’ for its clock tower , which is Grade 2 listed, together with the pool. Its new town centre (1957-9) included the first pedestrian-only shopping area in England.

As with a lot of post-war towns, there is a lack of civic pride evident in the tattiness and neglect of some buildings, but at certain camera angles, you can sense what the planners were trying to achieve, 60 years ago …

P1140828

I recall asking a German salesman from Compeda, who was staying at Stevenage for some training, whether he had seen the New Town. He replied, “Yes, twice. The first time and the last time”, which I thought a trifle rude.

Back in Hitchin we pass through the Waitrose car-park, which we had worked out was the location of the maternity hospital where Jonny was born. While on the phone to Angela, she suddenly says “Is there a mulberry tree there ?”, just at the point when we walk up to – yes – a large mulberry tree (the only thing she could remember from her maternity ward window ). So here is Jonathan at his birthplace…

That evening, a great gastro-pub meal at the Highlander and walk back to the B&B along the Bedford Road towards Ickleford. As the name suggests, this is on the Icknield Way, where our forebears must have crossed the River Hiz (pronounced ‘Hitch’), which flows North from the town to the Great Ouse, through Huntingdon, past Swavesey and into the Fens …

P1140845

P1140849

Days 15 : Two Can Ride as Jonny Goes Home

Today’s trip tracks backwards through the eighties for us and I am delighted that Jonathan my eldest son has joined me for a long weekend of Dad & Lad reminiscing. No mucking about as lots of miles to cover, and a rendezvous arranged in Cambridge, so here’s Jonny and today’s visual word-play …

The toucan’s bowl is one of Jim’s many – he is a pole-lathing enthusiast and we find some of his tools around the garage …

Kathy’s pride and joy is her wild garden, she used to sell cultivated wildflowers from a stall at the front of their house for many years …

P1140648

We set off for a rendezvous in Cambridge, down the guided busway again. Cambridge council are very green and have managed to adapt their busses to run on unrefined graffiti …

P1140654

Our meeting is with Al Clarke, an old buddy from CIS days. Now retired, he spends a lot of time helping out on the EDSAC rebuild project. EDSAC was built in 1947 for Cambridge University and was arguably the world’s first general purpose computer for problem-solving (as compared with Colossus, which was designed as a code-breaking machine). The project is rebuilding a working replica using valves and old componentry, based on photographs, scrappy design notes and a lot ageing nous amongst their team of enthusiasts. The videos on their website are fascinating : http://www.tnmoc.org/special-projects/edsac/in-the-news

After a coffee with Al and a lot of reminiscing, we head down to the River Cam, to take a look at the brand new boathouse which my youngest son Ben had a hand in designing …

P1140663

Cambridge lock is the ‘back-of-beyond’ in canal terms. You have to go North through the fens to Upwell (nearly as far as the Wash) before turning left to Peterborough and along the Nene to pick up Northampton Arm in order to reach the Grand Union. A total of 140 miles and 60 locks. The most direct route by road being just over 50 miles …

There is growing support for a brand new canal from the Grand Union at Milton Keynes to the Great Ouse at Bedford, aimed at galvanising tourism by connecting the Fenland system more directly.

I can’t think of an appropriate caption for this one …

P1140672

A quick pic on the Cam-Bridge, then through Cycle City – nice to finally ride here for the first time …

P1140676

In 2010 4 students travelled Cambridge to Oxford in a punt 200 miles, 113 locks, in 12 days …P1140688-Edit

South of Cambridge, a reminder of the universal reach of the city’s scientific and technology interests, as we head down to Harston Mill – the site where CIS moved to in the mid 80’s …

The white wooden structure on the side is an impressive example of a ‘lucam’ or shelter for raising/lowering sacks of grain and flour through a trapdoor. The occupants, busily glued to their PC’s, kindly allowed us a quick look upstairs at the old hoist…

P1140701

The mill was converted for our company, and coincidentally designed by RH Partnership, the architectural practice Ben had worked for,  A couple of years ago, he came across their model of this site languishing under a desk in his office …

We’re late again, Rita is patiently waiting to join us for lunch at the Green Man on Dunsbridge Turnpike …

P1140714

Rita was my PA at CIS and although we exchange Christmas cards, I haven’t seen her for 28 years. And what a lovely fish-finger sandwich lunch and catch-up we have !

Heading West now into a stiff breeze, finally come across a Meridian marker courtesy of the good folk of Meldreth and then a village who’s name is straight out of a Goon Show script …

Back in open country, another reminder of how in the 1940’s, Eastern England became populated with a huge swathe of aerodromes, supporting the war effort. This one was American and a base for Mustangs and Thunderbolt fighters …

… then arrive in Ashwell, a beautiful North Hertfordshire village, with a very interesting church …

Inside are the locally famous Ashwell graffiti, scratched into the stone at the time of the Black Death and describing the devastating effect it had on the village. There is also a picture of St Pauls Church which preceded the Wren Cathedral, built after the Great Fire …

P1140742P1140743

Polly, Linda and Sandra discuss the graffiti with us …

On the way towards Letchworth, we cycle a short section of the Great North Road, before ducking under the A1(M). In the mid 1600’s, such was the damage to the clay surface of the road, caused by driven cattle and heavy traffic, the parish of nearby Radwell petitioned Parliament for help. From this action emerged the Turnpike Trusts of the 18th and 19th centuries …

P1140757

Avoiding the main roads, we enter Letchworth by the back door, but immediately come across some of the early social housing from Britain’s first Garden City (interestingly then built under the auspices of Hitchin, as Letchworth hadn’t been built) …

The city also plays host to the Icknield Way – one of the earliest known routes in Southern England that connected the flint mines of Grimes Graves in East Anglia with the Ridgeway and Stonehenge, Avebury etc. We wonder what iron age man would have made of ‘pay-and-display’ …

Letchworth also contains Britain’s first roundabout – at the convergence of six roads – which just had to be cycled around …

IMG_3022P1140768

Finally we arrive in Hitchin, after my longest day (47 miles), thankful I’d had Jonny for encouragement and company, as we seek out some supper and a glass of vino.

Day 14 : Down to the Fens

For quite a while I have been enamoured with interesting English place-names and have picked up a collection of favourites. Not the obvious ones like Old Sodbury or Puddletown, but I rather prefer those who could become characters in a Bertie Wooster novel. For example, Hartley Wintney – the affable, but not-so-bright estate agent or Nately Scures – the scheming miserly lawyer. So Higham Ferrers is definitely the retired brigadier, now captain of the golf club, who thoroughly disapproves of Wooster.

Higham is not a place that naturally sprang to mind as a ‘must-see’ for my journey, but was a convenient half way point on the way from West Haddon to Cambridge. A quick ride through last night confirmed, however that the place is definitely worth a second look. Its high street is lined with attractive stone  buildings and there is a very interesting church.

The stone here has changed from honey-gold to clotted cream, although the church has an attractive mixture of both …

The church and associated buildings appear to be punching above a weight that the town should warrant. Paul explains that the main benefactor was local boy-made-good Henry Chichele, who rose to become Henry V’s right-hand man and Archbishop of Canterbury in the 15th century. There is an unusual double nave a chapter house and also a ‘Bede House’. This was the living quarters for twelve Bedes Men, who were over 50,  without property , and who were employed to pray for the souls of their sponsor. In  return for board and lodging, provided by one Bedes Woman (an early form of social security for the lucky few) …

The morning’s ride is along a fairly straight B road, with some drivers going at motorway speed, which I find a bit intimidating. At least with my wing mirror, I can keep an eye on them approaching. At Hargrave I notice the stone houses have completely vanished and use of stone is now confined to churches, which remains the case as I travel East.  This illustrates how poor transport must have constrained the choice of materials (The village sign seems to doubt whether it is actually  in Northants) …

Kimbolton Castle, of course is built of stone and is where Catherine of Aragon spent her last days, having caused the Church of England…

P1140525P1140522-Edit

Beyond here the landscape opens up and rolls gently lower, the skies getting progressively bigger and I’m getting back to familiar territory …

IMG_2623

Just before Grafham Water, a line of pilons. There has been a recent competition to come up with a more pleasing design, but like red phone boxes, these now seem part of the landscape …

P1140531

In the woods, it’s great to see that my health and safety are  being well looked after. (On the canals, not once did I see any ‘beware large hole in towpath’ warning) …

P1140535

My picnic lunch at Grafham Water is a bit frugal, so relieved to find the Community shop in the village, where Debs is pleased to sell me two snickers bars for £1 (which due to shrink-flation is equivalent to one old Snickers bar) …

P1140537P1140538

The Great North Road has strong cultural associations in the national psyche with heros and anti-heroes like Dicks Whittington and Turpin. These days it would be ill advised for anyone to traipse along the hard shoulder with a cat, let alone sit on a horse shouting ‘Stand and deliver!’ Small wonder we are stuck with so many listless celebrities. However, the bridge supports for new intersection do have a temple-like quality …

Now entering the flat-lands and Huntingdon, in a cycle-friendly county where dedicated cycle paths immediately begin to appear. The council offices look like they were built on a shoestring …

Across Portholme reputedly Englands largest meadow, to the Great Ouse, where I find my lock-for-the-day, being worked by Derek and Molly and their friends…

I help them open the gates, in return for which Derek offers me a short cruise on the Ouse (how could I refuse) …

Derek worked at Vauxhall Motors in Luton before he retired, so I mention my family’s connections with AC Delco who were component supplier to them from Dunstable.

The river trip sends my GPS tracker into a spin, as there’s no adjacent path – must think I am now involved a triathlon.

Hemingford Grey House was the location for my first management course , where the main thing I can remember is being taught how to play croquet …

I disembark here and head off for St Ives …P1140587

St Ives was Oliver Cromwell’s local town when he farmed in the area. It is little known that this workaholic control-freak also held down part time jobs with the council as inspector of windows and chimneys  …

From St Ives to Cambridge is the Guided Busway, which allows adapted street buses to fly through the fields at alarming speed. I follow the adjacent cycleway, then leave at the fen-edge village of Swavesey…

The main street happens to be on the Greenwich meridian and the village square was originally a small port, as we are now following the edge of the Fens…

P1140610

Swavesey Grange was also the location of Cambridge Interactive Systems (CIS) a software house that produced a Computer Aided Design (CAD) application called Medusa (successful into the 90’s when Autocad pretty much gobbled up the market). I worked here in 1984 …

Pass Mare Fen, where I turned out on one cold Saturday morning, to witness David Attenborough on a whistle stop, to open it as a nature reserve. A few times while living here, it was cold enough in winter to flood the fens with a few inches of water and when they iced over families came to watch the fen skating. The land to north-east of here is as flat as a pancake, much of it below sea level and black with peat …

P1140615

Then on to Willingham-Safety-Camera, where we lived for five happy years in a house full of babies…

We have been back here a few times since leaving in 1989, and although it doesn’t feel quite as rural, (I didn’t see anyone selling fruit & vedge from tables with honesty boxes next to their drives) essentially it hasn’t changed much . Characteristic ‘Cambridge White’ brick houses, the old village bank, (now a micro-pub) and the smock windmill now renovated and someones home …

Gambrel (double pitched) rooves and road names are reminders of Dutch influence in the Fens …

Down the road in Longstanton, where I am house-sitting for our friends Kathy and Jim, who are on holiday, there is significant new development. A new town Northstowe is under construction, near to the guided busway…

Too lazy to sort my own supper out, resort to the local chippy, while I wait for Jonathan to arrive from London …

IMG_2624

 

 

 

Day 13 : Reach for the Skies (or at least the bedroom ceiling)

One of the best aspects of this adventure is that many of the best experiences have been unplanned. Whether chance meetings, or accidental detours, or just ‘things happening’, if you just wait around a while.

My lack of enthusiasm for this ‘road day’ is transformed by Debbie’s idea that I alter the route to go past Sywell Aerodrome and the fact that the rain has passed through and the sun is out again. I now have an objective, so time to fire up the selfie-stick and say goodbye …

IMG_2605

This area of Northamptonshire has always been sparsely populated and there are no East-West trunk roads. The ‘rolling’ landscape has a scattering of small settlements, made attractive by their characteristic golden stone buildings. Most of the villages I pass through are the reward for slogging up a hill – presumably located there for defensive reasons …

Plenty of evidence of drove roads and easy to imagine this one, without tarmac and full of livestock being driven to market in Northampton …

P1140330

Pass through the twin villages of ‘Church with Chapel Brampton’, the latter a staging point on the turnpike road from London to Nottingham. I spot the ‘Old Posting House’ and this old coaching inn entrance on the main crossroads. ‘Turnpike’ was the name for the gate used to control traffic and collect tolls. As through traffic increased during the 18th century, local parishes who were responsible for their section of road, got fed up with the additional maintenance, so were allowed to set up ‘turnpike trusts’ and charge tolls …

P1140336

Down in the valley is Brampton Halt on the old Northampton to Lamport railway, where on the platform, some railway enthusiasts are attacking rusty objects with emery paper. So I nip deftly into the pub, where Danielle and Bryony serve me an excellent cappuccino, then sneak some pics from the other side of the line …

Another unplanned detour up the cycleway adjacent to the track , helps avoid a nasty hill on a busy road. The alternative route becomes a delightful bridleway where I just have skylarks and buzzards for company. The ripe barley sways in the breeze, swirling with glistening silver drifts as if the stone has melted to become a golden sea. [took me about 10 minutes to think that up, Kathy. Should I just stick to the photography ? Discuss ] …

P1140358P1140357P1140362

Another interesting village is Moulton, dominated by the Agricultural College, but with apparent evidence of weavers cottages …

… and a nice house with two holly trees straddling the front path. Someone once told me that it was ancient folklore that planting a pair of these trees before the main door kept evil spirits out of your property. I tried to take this pic with Rob passing in the foreground, but he attempts to duck out of the way, then returns obligingly for ‘Take 2’ after I explain that I like to have people in my photos …

I am reminded here that we are brushing against the edge of Northampton. The local nimby group appears to be run by a highly creative acronym fiend …

P1140379

Next stop Sywell Aerodrome. Three things to love about this place:

  • The gorgeous art-deco buildings including the Aviator Hotel
  • The fascinating and welcoming Aviation Museum
  • The Grace Spitfire, which by a stroke of luck, takes paying passengers out for flights on Wednesday lunchtimes

The Restaurant has a patio at the back overlooking the taxiing area, complete with live radio from the control tower, piped through the PA system. Why are all pilots called Roger ? …

P1140392P1140398P1140403

At junior school, the War was still very much part of recent collective memory and it was the norm that young boys were immersed in a culture of toy guns, war comics, and Airfix fighter planes. My bedroom ceiling was festooned with a random selection of World War II aircraft, suspended by fishing line, plus a few jet fighters, as we were now living in the jet age. The tiny museum, provided an inspiring tour through some aviation memories …P1140424

Cockpit of a Canberra, part of the bedroom ceiling collection and still operating out of RAF Whitton, when we lived in the Fens

P1140423

Keith was a pilot of the Blackburn Buccaneer jet fighter (also one of my kit models). “They were the queen of the skies. they had a clever air redistribution system which made them unmatched for low-speed flying, but as they came out of the Navy carrier air fleet, the RAF were initially reluctant to adopt them” Keith is standing next to a Martin Baker ejection seat. I visited their Denham factory in the 80’s while working in the CAD industry and a sign at the gate said something like “5000 lives saved/ Total in-service life of all our products = 80 hours 2 minutes 50 seconds ” (as the time from pulling the lever to parachute deployment is a just few seconds) …

P1140409

As a teenager, I joined the Air Cadets, and the only powered flight to date where I have taken the controls was in a Chipmunk trainer …

P1140406

… And when I got married, my best man John Zach (an aero engineer from Bristol) was working for Singer Link Miles simulators (this is an early Link sim.)

P1140405

Eating a sandwich outside, I get onto talking about my bike trip with Mike, another of the museum staff. Incredibly, it turns out that he had made all the signs for Lancelot’s brother Eddie who owned the Birmingham nightclubs: Rebecca’s, Barbarella’s and the Cedar. “I was certainly relieved each time I was paid” he recalled. Small world…

P1140425

Never much of a book-worm as a child, I nevertheless became hooked on the Biggles series of this fictional wartime pilot – who of course flew a spitfire. A favourite film was Reach for the Skies, chronicling the exploits of Douglas Bader, who lost both legs, but continued to fly his Spitfire in the Battle of Britain. When the thunderous roar of a Merlin engine interrupts our chat, Mike tells me to hurry to the fence to see the Grace Spitfire go out for its weekly spin. I have never before seen one this close, in action …

P1140412P1140430P1140440

So there we are – what a detour ! (thanks Debbie).

The rest of the day is frankly a bit of a slog along roads getting busier towards rush hour, although one or two nice buildings pass me by (relatively speaking) …

P1140460

P1140457

While photographing the second one through their tall iron gates, Mrs Neighbourhood-Watch comes from opposite and asks if I am trying to break in. Dressed in my hi-vis jacket, hi-vis bicycle clips and hi- vis fully loaded panniers, with flashing lights front and rear, I must confess it might have looked a bit suspicious, but when I point out I am doing a charity bike ride, she loses interest and turns on her heel.

Approaching Irthlingborough with its distinctive church tower, just across the river from today’s destination, there is a reminder that I am in healthy snack country (Whitworths is a major employer in the town) …

The River Nene runs between Irthlingborough and Higham Ferrers and is the only navigable connection between the main canal system and the fenland waterways of Peterborough and Cambridge.

I hadn’t expected any canals or locks today, but the Greenway cycle route through a marshland nature reserve takes me over the Nene, where there is a lock in the distance. Hanging around to get the right shot, something unexpected happens ….

… I suppose that’s a novel (if somewhat risky) way to reach for the skies.

More on Higham Ferrers tomorrow.

Day 10: Stairway to Heaven and other rock miscellanea

My original plan was to cycle 500 miles. With detours I had at this point passed the 300 mile mark and 8 of my 16 days cycling, so this must be half way ! Now I am back home, the blog is catching up. However I must confess to the occasional ‘Alan Partridge’ moment, where I’m thinking ” is there anyone out there actually reading this guff ?” So, in need of a bit of encouragement to finish it, please press ‘follow’ on this website, or ‘like’ on the Facebook page. If you haven’t already donated, then every little helps on  https://mydonate.bt.com/fundraisers/stevegregory60

Thankyou, Grumps

Mike is a bit of a rock aficionado and a couple of years ago spotted my pic in Morrissey’s biography. After some investigation we worked out this was from the early 80’s at my other cousin Michael’s wedding. The gentleman in the foreground was Jake Walters, (his new wife’s nephew) now a society photographer and Morrissey’s friend. The wedding was at Solihull, which I was due to pass through later that morning. So I was famous for 5 minutes if only to to show how fashions and hairstyles were changing ! (I am the un-hip one on the left) ….

Steve 70s Pic in Morrisey Bio

My only other significant encounter with rock royalty was in ’79 while staying at a central Brum hotel, during the Church St construction project. I was kept awake all night by the antics of a hyped-up post-gig group along my corridor, who went by the name of Simple Minds

Joycelyn, not to be upstaged by my recent B&B experiences, serves a breakfast of smoked salmon and scrambled egg. Despite this, I am still only firing on three cylinders, due to yesterday’s exertions. At 10:30 Mike has to kick me out, as Joycelyn has gone to chapel and he has to catch his train to a U2 concert…

IMG_2575

Freewheel aimlessly down Gravelly Hill to Spaghetti Junction (officially named the Gravelly Hill Interchange in 1972). A century ago this would have been a fashionable main road in the leafy suburb, but it is now a main feeder into the infamous tangle of roads…

Before motorways, the Salford Bridge on the Litchfield Road would have been a main route into the city…

P1140057P1140054

Across the bridge,  glad to report that summer fun starts …

P1140058

Spag Junction dominates the skyline …P1140061

Back on the towpath and John and his wife are enjoying the Sunday with a spot of family fishing. They have a concession to come here on Monday’s too as they supervise a group of drug dependent young adults and have found that sociable fishing appears to help a lot with their therapy …

P1140065P1140063

Beyond this point the canal through Saltley becomes ever more derelict and deserted, save for the occasional dubious-looking individual hanging around the bridge arches. Perhaps because I’m tired, I begin to feel a little uneasy, then I notice a character in black cycling about 50 yards behind. I speed up, he speeds up; I slow down, he slows down, always keeping his distance. Sure it’s all in my mind, but to play safe I speed up enough to lose him a bit, then go up the next ramp to road level and conceal myself as I watch him pass beneath my bridge…P1140067

Realising I’ve been running on adrenaline, I give it ten minutes, have a good drink then fly through the rest of this section at speed, until I reach the main line of the BCN coming from the city centre. Am somewhat relieved to encounter Annie and Steve from Solihull, out for their morning constitutional …

P1140078

Still lots of graffiti about. I have mixed views about this. When someone does well in their career, we say they have ‘made their mark’. When young people mark their territories, perhaps they are laying claim to a place others have abandoned. There is no excuse for scribbling abuse or threats on beautiful buildings, but if we put bare walls up topped with razor wire, why complain when the local youth make them colourful ? …

As is often the way with cities, urban dereliction gives way to leafy prosperity in the blink of an eye and I know I am now passing through Solihull …P1140085

Then almost as suddenly, into the countryside and in the midst of bucolic canal life …

P1140103P1140098 - CopyP1140099

At Kingswood Junction there is a short section of canal about 300 yds, which connects the Grand Union with the South Stratford running parallel with it. MTB enthusiasts Tony and Macin stop for a chat, then I do a quick detour up the link and back again, then press on to my rendezvous, with just enough time to spare …

Then suddenly I realise I have dropped my precious notebook, with all my notes, names, thoughts etc from the trip! I can remember getting it out at Kingswood, 3 miles back. So set off back there, in a flap – as I’m now going to be late. Miraculously the first people I meet, walking their dog,  actually remember seeing it on the ground near the bridge, but when I get there, there is nothing. In desperation I ask Sharon and Darren who have their idyllic little garden and boat mooring nearby and Darren’s eagle eye spots it, now left by some helpful person on the information plinth …

P1140120P1140118

When you’re in a hurry the canal system has a way of throwing up a new challenge. This horse tunnel climbs steeply above the main canal and ends with this flight of steps. a challenge with a fully loaded bike …

P1140124

P1140126

Somehow I manage to get to the Hatton Lock cafe, just 30 minutes late. Manjit, who was my PA at Arqiva, is also just arriving (judging my lack of timekeeping to perfection as usual)…

The inauspicious wooden hut came well recommended and Manjit treats us both to the full-works cream tea. (note to self: triple dose of statins tonight) …

FullSizeRender1

Manjit is from Coventry and also likes live music – having just been to the Godiva Festival. She knew all the members of the Specials, that great local group,  before they became famous.

My father recalls the night in 1940, when the city and old cathedral were bombed during the Blitz and he could see the glow of the fires from 50 miles away in Leighton Buzzard. I had wanted to visit the iconic new cathedral again, but there just wasn’t time to fit it on my route.

After demolishing all but one nominal piece of carrot cake (would be dreadfully rude to eat everything), we say our cheerios and stagger to respective vehicles.

The evening sun is creating some nice light, so I take time to descend the Hatton Lock flight (21 locks and known as the Stairway to Heaven) …

Near the bottom a cheery fisherman with a thick Brummie accent shows me photos of the bream and carp he has caught today. Conversation drifts to prostate cancer, careers and my journey (all the usual stuff) and he goes to his car to get some cash to donate to the bike ride charities. I am strictly instructed not to laugh, as he tells me his name is Lancelot. One of a large family from the “rough end of Birmingham”, he made good and became MD of Spear and Jackson. He then pulls out a treasured photo showing his younger self with Mohammed Ali, George Foreman and Joe Frazier …

P1140146P1140150

It turns out that one of his brothers Eddie became Mr Big in the nightclub and promotions scene in Birmingham in the sixties and seventies – hence the picture.

Shortly after, arrive in Warwick, and find my lodgings for the night, another 35 miles travelled.  The high street is a lovely mish-mash of different architectures, a lot of them half timbered and jettied. Eventually find a 7-11 shop open on Sunday, where I can purchase some salad bits for a DIY supper. It is nearly 6 years since I left Arqiva, the broadcast telecoms company that owns most of the big TV and radio masts around the country. Half my team were at Warwick and I used to stay up here a lot  …

P1140171P1140165P1140173