… for the boys – my boys that is. A series of images from the 2021 MotoGP at Silverstone from 27th to 29th August. A birthday present from them all for a significant birthday – this is the simplest way for me to share the results of a great weekend. It was so good, we have been discussing plans for 2022 🙂
I am reading Neil Peart’s Ghost Rider, travels on the healing road. Within a short period from August 1997, he lost his daughter to a car accident and, ten months later, his common-law wife of twenty-three years, Jackie Taylor, who succumbed to cancer. Over a period of fourteen months, he rode 55,000 miles in search of a reason to live. Peart was an admirer of Hemingway and thanks to Ken Burns’ documentary, recently aired on the BBC, I pick up on the references.
Immediately before this, I was reading Lois Pryce’s Red Tape and White Knuckles, a solo motorcycle trip through Africa and before that, her Revolutionary Road, a solo ride through Iran. When I returned from Yorkshire last week, there was a surprise package on the doorstep – two books about a pair of dreamers, hell bent on taking part in the Isle of Man TT. The gift, from Simon at Ducati Preston, was prompted by a discussion about motorbikes and literature and my enthusiasm for Ted Bishop’s Riding with Rilke – Reflections on Motorcycles and Books. Centred on a road trip from Edmonton to Austin, Ted rides a Ducati Monster
It is not difficult to detect a recurring theme/obsession here. It is mid-July 2021 and already I have covered 6000+ miles – not in Peart’s or Pryce’s league but surely indicative of an unhealthy mania. Many of the miles were accumulated on a glorious one week trip to the north of Scotland. The rest of the time I can be found, alone or in the company of a few like-minded souls, anywhere across the length of Northumberland, the Scottish Borders, County Durham and North Yorkshire. This week I was back at Port Carlisle – I keep going back – the road, any road, is an addiction. To quote Lois – Being on a bike throws you out there into the thick of it, whether you want it or not, and makes you more vulnerable as a result. But with that vulnerability comes an intensity; a concentrated high, a sweet nerve-jangling, heart thumping, sugar-rush sensation of the kind that only comes from real down ‘n’ dirty, life-affirming motorcycling.
There is something other-worldly about this stretch of the southern Solway coast. There are traces of conflict, two separate abandoned railways, a demolished mile long bridge across the Firth and the ruins of a sizeable trans-shipment port. All of this has gone – there are scattered communities but, even in these days of staycations, the roads and shoreline remain quiet, ghostly. It is this that keeps drawing me back – like Ted, I was riding a Monster:
To quote that well-used adage, you don’t stop riding when you get old, you get old when you stop riding. I imagine myself riding into my eighties – isn’t it pretty to think so.
… pronounced Anster or maybe Enster, if the man in the golf clubhouse is to be believed. But then, this sounds different again. Regardless, the brief golf trip into Fife was a great success and just one in a series of adventures that has kept me from WordPress since April. A week in Swanage was followed by a 1200 mile motorcycle journey to Scotland and the North Coast 500. A golfing trip was long overdue.
Anstruther Golf Course would have appeared in the sequel to Golf in the Wild but Covid delayed the trip and its inclusion beyond my deadlines. A shame in many respects as it proved to be everything I had hoped for – a fine course with some challenging holes, not least, the three consecutive par 3s at the southern end of the course. The first of these, the fifth – The Rockies, was deemed the toughest par 3 in Britain in 2007 by Today’s Golfer. It would be hard to disagree.
Beyond the golf course, the town was vibrant with much going on regardless of any social distancing obligations. These are a selection of images from a brief one night stay – they paint a better picture than words:
There are three ways to Throckrington – along rough tracks and a three-gated road, circumnavigating Colt Cleugh Reservoir; through Little Swinburne and Short Knowes, more rough tracks and, I am told, five gates; or, the single-track road (with no gates), signposted ‘Throckrington 1 Mile’ off the B6342, Colwell to Little Bavington road. I have walked the first and ridden the last. So many ways of reaching nowhere.
The settlement comprises nothing more than a sizeable farm and St Aidan’s church which once towered over a village, elevated on a spur of the Great Whin Sill. In 1847 a returning sailor brought cholera, the residents were wiped out and the houses destroyed. If anyone travels to Throckrington today, it is for the church and its graveyard. There is the farm but, nothing else.
The sloping graveyard has headstones etched with the names of the Border Reiver families – the Armstrongs, the Milburns, the Robsons and the Shaftoes, the latter celebrated by a too obvious granite obelisk. It is an odd ambition, to have the grandest memorial in the graveyard and perhaps galling that it is not the Reiver families that attract visitors.
Among the old bones, there are some surprising more recent incomers of note. At the north west of the graveyard lie the remains of Lord and Lady Beveridge beneath two unpretentious, arched headstones. William Henry Beveridge, 1st Baron Beveridge, KCB (5 March 1879 – 16 March 1963) was a British economist and Liberal politician whose 1942 report, Social Insurance and Allied Services (known as the Beveridge Report) provided the basis for the NHS and UK welfare state established by the 1945 Labour government.
A yet more modest memorial, a simple stone carved with the initials CRL marks where Constance Ruth Leathart is laid to rest. Connie flew Spitfires in World War II and was one of the first women with a pilot’s licence. According to Wiki she was born into a wealthy family on Tyneside and started flying lessons in 1925 at Newcastle Aero Club. She wrote her name as “C. R. Leathart” on the application form and was accepted before the club realised her gender. When she received her flying licence in 1927, Leathart became the first British female pilot outside London, and one of the first 20 overall.
She started an aircraft repair business, Cramlington Aircraft, with Walter Runciman, later Viscount Runciman, participated successfully in air races with him, and was one of a group of flying socialites. She was one of the first women to fly over the Alps, in a de Havilland Tiger Moth and was the first in Great Britain to design and fly a glider.
When World War II broke out, she was working in the map department at Bristol Airport and volunteered as one of the first members of the Air Transport Auxiliary, female pilots who delivered aircraft from the manufacturers.
After the war ended, she became a United Nations special representative to the Greek island of Icaria and received an award of merit from the International Union for Child Welfare. She reluctantly gave up flying in 1958 and retired to a farm in Little Bavington, Northumberland, where she cared for rescued donkeys.
The stone that marks Connie’s grave is the step taken from her unheated swimming pool which she used regardless of the weather. A simple memorial to a remarkable life.
Finally, there is Tom Sharpe, the satirical novelist best known for Blott on the Landscape and Porterhouse Blue. Except he is not there – some of his ashes, along with a bottle of whisky, a Cuban cigar and a pen, were buried without permission and were later exhumed by the Vicar of St Aidan’s. Maud’s gardener would have been up in arms.
… down forestry roads, deep into Wark Forest. I am no off-road hero but, some loose gravel I can cope with at sensible speeds. The attraction is that it takes you places you would never otherwise go and mostly, you are completely alone. This route starts at Whygate, a place already far from anywhere, at which point narrow tarmac with passing places turns to unmade forestry roads. Three miles in a sign advises that the already rough track is unsuitable for motorised vehicles. I have a sneaking suspicion that this is designed to deter through traffic – apart from a ford, Google Earth seems to show a cycle route which at worst has grass growing down the middle. I was suitably deterred but intend going back to attack it from the southern end. With echoes of the Northwest Passage I have a burning ambition to break through from Once Brewed on the Military Road to complete a fabulous circular route.
As it was, I turned back and headed over Shitlington Common (I kid you not) to Bellingham, down the North Tyne Valley to Wark and then along the eastern side of the Tyne to Barrasford, Chollerton and home.
It was wonderful to be out and I make no pretence about it being an ‘essential journey’ other than for the sake of my sanity.
Sunday, April 17th 2016, we travelled from South Uist to Eriskay across the causeway, opened by the Earl and Countess of Wessex on the 11th September 2002. This one mile crossing is the last in a series linking the islands of Berneray, North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist and Eriskay. A sixty mile string of roads and bridges which has added much to the convenience of local life but taken some of the romance from travelling these Outer Hebridean islands. We briefly toured the island by car, stopped at the Barra Ferry, took a quick look at Am Politician and were gone, heading south by ferry to Skye.
In 1934, Werner Kissling arrived by sea and stayed on Eriskay for the summer. A career diplomat for the Weimar Republic, his postings took him to Spain, Hungary, Switzerland and finally, the UK as Second Secretary in the German embassy, London. Alarmed at the rise of the Nazi movement, he resigned when they came to power in 1933. Personally harangued by Hitler, he borrowed the yacht, Elspeth, and headed north to escape the attentions of the German secret police.
This great escape undoubtedly suited him immensely. For reasons not entirely clear, he had, from an early age, developed a passion for the Scottish Islands and its people. During his time on Eriskay, he filmed the islanders as they went about their daily lives – collecting peat with their ponies, sheep farming, fishing and tweed making. The resulting film, A Poem of Remote Lives, is an astonishing record of a Gaelic community and a way of life that had not changed in hundreds of years:
New Year’s Day was dull and grey. The next we awoke to a world changed. Overnight snow is the joy of winter. By some standards, it was a modest covering but sufficient to raise me from my lockdown position in front of several PC screens. If we must have winter, if I am unable to ride a motorcycle, if I cannot swing a golf club, then let’s at least have it pretty.
It is around this time of year I get itchy feet and plot escapes north, always by rail – Inverness, Wick, Kyle of Lochalsh and Bodø/Lofoten have been my destinations over successive years, although only the latter yielded the white stuff. This year, inevitably, I am going nowhere – locked up, locked down, call it what you will, I am told we are in Tier 4. News channels can speculate, offer opinions, call in experts, exhort, criticise and alarm – just don’t assume I am listening. I am out of reach and much the happier:
Today I walked down the street I use to wander
Yeah, shook my head and made myself a bet
There was all these things that I don’t think I remember
Hey, how lucky can one man get.
The field next to our home is filled with sheep. The red dye on their backsides confirms they have been seen to by the tup (ram) – he has been a busy boy. It is disappointing that, around the time the fruits of his endeavours begin to show, the flock is moved to the lower nursery slopes.
After a while you begin to notice how your neighbours behave. On really cold, still nights, they gather beneath the trees to avoid the ground frost. Generally timid, they will disperse as we leave the front door but, rattle a plastic bag that might contain ewe nuts and they will come running. Lie down for any length of time and a significant number will limp away, appearing to suffer from dead legs.
I share their pain – a golf induced knee injury, rotten weather, salty slippery roads and various tiers of lockdown have all served to constrain the usual activities – travel, golf and motorcycles. Nevertheless, there is always much to see, just look to the skies:
And then modest snow arrived on Christmas Eve and hung around for the next day – a White Christmas for Hexham:
So, to sign off for 2020, I wish my modest band of followers, all the best for a much-improved 2021. Before I go, some 2020 milestones:
a. In late 2020 I approached maximum disc space on wordpress.com after eight years – I am now subscribed with an annual fee which at least demonstrates commitment and should ensure my readers are not subjected to peculiar adverts;
b. Despite lockdowns, I still managed to clock 7165 miles on the motorbikes – several hundred more than in lockdown free 2019;
c. We still managed to get away – to Saughtree in the Borders, twice to Mallaig and once to north Northumberland. A return to the latter was abandoned due to the second lockdown;
d. The text for the Golf in the Wild sequel is now complete and due for publication in September. Possibly the only golf success in a year when playing was much curtailed.
Finally, as parting shots, a couple of images of the ‘Bad Company‘ I kept on some of the most memorable days in 2020:
An information plaque on one of the viaduct columns provides a brief overview of its history: In 1969, after being in use for 100 years, this railway viaduct was preserved for the public by the Northumberland and Newcastle Society through the generosity of many donors. The viaduct was constructed in 1862 to carry the North Tyne Railway and is a notable example of Victorian engineering. It is a rare and the finest surviving example of the skew arch form of construction. This required that each stone in the arches should be individually shaped in accordance with the method evolved by Peter Nicholson of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, a pioneer geometrician in this field.
The viaduct is decorated with crenelated ramparts and arrow slits to appease the Duke of Northumberland. The line passed in front of his hunting lodge at Kielder Castle and he insisted that its design should be consistent with the castle’s Gothic style.
Later known as the Border Counties Railway (BCR), it ran from Riccarton just over the Scottish Border all the way down the North Tyne Valley to Hexham. Opening in stages between 1858 and 1862, commercial traffic was limited from the outset and the thinly populated Borders meant that passenger numbers were always small. The line closed to passengers in 1956 and the tracks lifted in 1963.
Keep walking south for just under a mile, following the route of the abandoned line and you are confronted with open water. This is where the BCR is submerged beneath Kielder Water, not reappearing until Falstone, some six miles south and beyond Kielder Dam. Much else lies beneath – Plashetts Colliery, the station, parts of the old village, various farms and HMS Standard. Sadly, a prolonged drought will not reveal ghost villages as the buildings were destroyed before the valley was flooded. Nor will the superstructure of some long lost battleship emerge – HMS Standard was a shore based assessment and rehabilitation centre for naval personnel diagnosed with personality disorders. Whatever inspired the reservoir’s civil engineers, it wasn’t the lost city of Atlantis.
Beneath the viaduct there is a neat little device called a blackbox-av. Wind the handle to provide a charge and you can listen to the Viaduct Voices – short stories told by locals about the railway, the wildlife and a time before the coming of the reservoir. The voices are appropriately faint and distant – much like Hendersen’s Bridge on Raasay.
So much for New Year resolutions. I had planned to post on WordPress every week, no great ambition considering I post on Blipfoto every day. What got in the way – ‘events, dear boy, events’ as Harold MacMillan allegedly once said. It’s a disappointment, not a capital crime; one for the thought police rather than the boys in blue but, it does feed a guilty conscience. This, and a fear of authority were instilled from an early age and they persist.
In the early 1950s, the family home was still wired with pre-war round pin plugs – differently rated plugs were different sizes. A 5 amp plug was physically different to a 15 amp plug, and they required different sockets. The Electrolux ZA30 vacuum cleaner was fitted with a bakelite 15 amp plug conforming to BS 546. Like many family homes, the house was not converted to square pin, BS 1363, until the early 1960s, even though the British Standard was first published in 1947.
There were a number of safety features associated with BS 1363, not least the shuttered socket which prevents a child pushing a nail into one of the holes and making a live connection. I remember no inclination to do so. The round pins were unsafe in other ways, not directly associated with BS 546 – their bakelite construction was prone to break, revealing deadly live wires.
One innocent summer’s morning I was accused – ‘You have broken the vacuum cleaner plug Robin! – half is missing – where is it – you could have electrocuted me!’ Mother was in full exaggerated flow. ‘Where is it, just tell me! ‘ My denials went unheeded and then, as if by magic, the broken part appeared on the staircase. More accusations, more threats – just admit it or I am calling the police! I was young enough to believe this a possibility. The imagined policeman arriving at the door was not a man in blue but plain clothes CID in a brown mac. Neither Sergeant Pluck nor Policeman MacCruiskeen, this third policeman was cobbled in my head from TV characters, none of them sympathetic. ‘Just admit it and nothing more will be done’. And so, I did. A stinging smack, I was sent to bed for the day, no TV and only toast for tea.
This was a valuable lesson. I learned that the truth will not always save you. I learned that under duress, anyone can be persuaded to say anything. I learned that grown-ups were fallible, not always to be trusted.
I was completely innocent – so innocent, I never made the obvious accusation – my sister did it! Big sister kept quiet throughout and who could blame her given the onslaught I received. The magical appearance on the staircase was probably an attempt to pacify except it only made things worse.
In the many days pre-school, time eased along with the tortoise whereas now, it runs with the hare. This was the longest day. It was a pattern repeated and repeated down the years.
Hell goes round and round. In shape it is circular, and by nature it is interminable, repetitive, and nearly unbearable. Flann O’Brien