Category Archives: Bikes

Bands of optimism?

Last week I had the honour of a guest post on Gladys Ganiel’s faith and politics blog.  My short piece, a response to her post about the Twelfth of July parades,  tried to look at the subject from a rural perspective and specifically mentioned the desire among musicians, and brass band players in particular, to forge cross-community links and take part in more joint and integrated events.

Within a few days I had the chance to see in practice what I had so blithely been talking about.  As anyone who rashly flings their opinions online will know, circumstances are rarely so helpful, and so I didn’t want to miss the opportunity.   The little town of Tempo, some ten miles from Enniskillen, has two silver bands, the mainly Protestant Tempo Silver Band and the mainly Catholic St. Mary’s Silver Band.  St. Mary’s celebrates its centenary this year and marked it with a ‘Monster Band Parade’ last night in which Tempo Silver and other local bands were invited to participate.

The only potential drawback, from my point of view, was that I had to cycle there and back.  Twenty-odd miles is a lot more than I usually manage in my potterings around town, but my husband, who does the trip at least once a week, assured me that I could manage.  To sweeten the pill he promised a Guinness and a Chinese takeaway from any establishments of my choice within the metropolis of Tempo (pop. 533).  As usual, gluttony took a slight lead over sloth and I agreed to give it a try.  The main road from Enniskillen to Tempo is a long, long upward slope past a straggle of small industrial units so we took the gentler back roads for the first few miles, giving way to passing cows, before joining the main road here, at Garvary church.

After that it was even easier,  without even bovine congestion, and as we coasted into Tempo I scarcely felt that I’d earned the promised black stuff.  I wasn’t going to admit it though, and made straight for the Milltown Manor before the rush.

They don’t serve food in the evenings,  and so we repaired to the Yummy Inn (no doubt a traditional Chinese name) across the road for something hotter and more conventionally nutritious.

A side road led to a pleasant little park with a picnic bench and here we whiled away the final minutes before the commencement of the Monster (shades of Daniel O’Connell?) Parade.

The parade was a great success, starting not too very long after its advertised commencement (we are, after five years, well accustomed to the concept of Fermanagh Time), and including:

St. Mary’s themselves, obviously, leading the way;


St. Patrick’s Pipe Band;


Tempo Silver Band, with small bandsmen on cymbals and triangle:


Coa Pipe Band (we’d passed the turning for Coa on our way, which indicates something of the richness of the musical tradition within a tiny area);


Ballyreagh Silver Band (we’d also cycled right past the hall where they practice);


St. Eugene’s Band from Omagh, whose website shows their own practical commitment to bridge-building:

“Our busiest time of year is at Christmas when we play carols at various locations culminating on Christmas morning when we play at Omagh Sacred Heart Church followed by attendance at one of the Omagh Presbyterian churches.”


some very young traditional Irish musicians;







a couple of lovingly maintained vintage cars,  some motor and quad bikes and frolicking around them all, a troupe of muppets, superheroes, Elvis and giant animals collecting donations and handing out sweets (we met a very elderly lady on our way back joyfully sucking her lemon lollipop).

The parade ended at the parish centre with  generously heaving tables of food, overflowing teapots and a bar (which sadly we had to foresake in the interests of wobbling home safely).  Later there was to be more music and a barbecue.  The whole evening was hugely enjoyable and characterized by enormous goodwill on the part of both musicians and spectators, a tangible expression of what is shared by the people of Fermanagh, so much deeper and more important than what sometimes divides us.

It doesn’t negate the problems that Northern Ireland has experienced, and which continue to threaten us (the policeman at the edge of several of the photos above can be seen cradling his gun – not a feature of most English village pageants) but provides a genuine and practical example of cooperation and generosity.  Like the successful Shared Education project which has brought thousands of schoolchildren together across traditional divides, this kind of initiative shows that it is often the smallest and most rural communities which can lead the way into a better future.



Playing the game

I’ve been looking at Dawn Foster‘s brilliant blogs, including the excellent A Hundred and One Wankers in which she chronicles, with the help of a Google map, the precise abuse which she receives as she cycles around London.  Or did, until the ‘greatest wanker of them all’ pinched her bike outside the Beckton Asda. ( I remember the Asda when we lived there twenty-five years ago, before Beckton had an infrastructure and we walked down to Custom House to go to Mass and get the train to work.)

Anyway,  though I don’t get as much specifically sexist abuse as Dawn (probably because I look like the abusers’ mums), M and I both get our share of close shaves and moronic motorists.  On Sunday afternoon, as I was cycling to The Graan, a young boy racer overtook me, threw a glass bottle out of his window (fortunately he didn’t have a passenger who might have had a better aim) and, as it smashed on the road beside me, stuck his arm out of the window with fist clenched in triumph.

Then there was this peculiar piece in the usually emollient Irish Times, bemoaning the fact that, while drivers suffer the indignity of  ‘inappropriate speed checks on dual carriageways’, cyclists are permitted to ride about helmetless with impunity.  (Bike helmets are, by the way, thankfully not yet compulsory in Ireland.)

What is it about cyclists that inspires such disproportionate ire?  True, some are annoying, but surely not so much as white van drivers or those elderly men in hats who hog the fast motorway lanes?  Dawn Foster’s other blog (see above) and Oliver James’s book The Selfish Capitalist: Origins of Affluenza
which I’m currently reading, gave some possible clues.  Foster writes about the extraordinarily virulent ‘anti-scrounger’ hysteria whipped up by our nice new government with its cuddly Lib Dem accessories while James analyses the emotional distress which accompanies relative materialism (as distinct from the logical materialism that results from not having enough money to buy your next meal).  It occurs to me that it’s basically about ensuring that everyone is playing the game: clambering up the career ladder, ditto the  property one (isn’t it odd how the housing benefit screeches were directed towards the powerless tenants rather than the landlords who actually profit from extortionate rents?) and surrounding oneself with shiny bits and pieces.  And cars, owned and driven, are perfect playing pieces, being so homogenous and easily confused (it’s as hard to recognize which silver hatchback is yours in the car park as to remember whether you chose yellow or blue for the current round of Ludo).

And so anyone who doesn’t play properly (good job, owned house, new car) is consquently suspect,  however otherwise dull or unexceptional.  And that explains why, other than the token grumble, no one really minds that the bankers have conned us out of more money than we can even imagine and are continuing to do so; at least they played the game, even if they cheated.  Or, since no one is quite sure of the rules once the banker is allowed to use the whole cash supply plus whatever he invents  (imagine Monopoly with that variation) perhaps they haven’t cheated at all, just played the game really, really well.

And then I cheered myself up entirely by watching The Story Of The Weeping Camel [DVD] which reminded me that the world is full of people who have no idea about the game and for whom even my bike would be an object of fascinated humour.  Watch it, and be filled with joy (though you might weep even more than the camel).

Cycling to church…

A few weeks ago a programme on BBC television called ‘How to Live a Simple Life’, followed the attempts of vicar Peter Owen Jones to do so, specifically by trying to live without using money for a certain period of time.  I didn’t see the beginning, but watched the second episode, in which our old college friend the Franciscan Philippe Yates explained that Christian poverty is not about self-sufficiency but about vulnerability.  (How this vulnerability is demonstrated by religious orders who have, if not legal ownership, control of very substantial resources is of course another question…)  Owen Jones then made a ‘Franciscan’ pilgrimage (walk-cum-hitchhike) across Southern England, begging for food and accommodation with the assistance of his camera crew and, occasionally, the Anglican clergy network.  However, during the third episode, during which he was back home, receiving generously filled casserole dishes from his lady parishioners,  the whole doing-without-money thing collapsed suddenly and ignominously.  The cause of the crisis was sadly and predictably banal; nothing more than the due date of his car’s insurance and MOT.

As vicar of a rural parish, it was of course understandable that Owen Jones would need to visit members of his flock living in far-flung locations at times incompatible with rural bus timetables and inconvenient to walk to.  But there was no discussion whatsoever about the feasibility of his doing without his own car for a period; it was simply stated as being essential and the experiment was immediately over.  Would it have been impossible for the wealthy neighbours who had been so lavish with the well-hung game and elaborate puddings to have offered their services in an emergency driving rota?  And for a man who had walked at least part of the way to Devon, could a bicycle not conceivably have satisfied his more local transport needs?

After commuting to work, doing the school run and big supermarket shop, driving to church must be one of the most regular journeys made by drivers in Britain and Ireland.  What is more, my husband (hereafter MJ), who goes out running on Sunday mornings, or used to, until he decided that he’d really prefer not to spend the rest of the day in A&E or on the mortuary slab, finds that they are often  the most inconsiderate and dangerous motorists he ever encounters.  Whether this is because their heads are filled with spiritual musings, they are still jubilant from Saturday evening celebrations, they are confident of going to heaven and don’t mind who they take with them, or because the roads are relatively empty and so they’re not taking much care to look, we don’t know, but it’s certainly not an ideal witness.

The question ‘What would Jesus drive?’ has, since it was first asked ten years or so ago, spread out to encompass the entire irony spectrum, from an indie rock band to the website of the UK Christian Car Club (‘cars provide an ideal means from which to share our faith’ – bumper stickers, presumably?).  The answers range from 4x4s through hybrids of questionable efficiency to ‘Nothing, he’d walk’ via some really quite execrable puns (easy to Google if you feel like a cringe) but oddly, bikes don’t seem to get a mention anywhere.

To make up a little of the deficiency, I thought I’d describe for you my own journey to church and back this morning.  Of course not everyone can do it, and I’m certainly not suggesting that Jesus will manifest his second coming in Lycra and cleated shoes, but it’s easier than you might think.  For a few weeks now I’ve been going to Mass more regularly at The Graan, a Passionist monastery a few miles outside Enniskillen.  The most well-known member of the community there is Brian D’Arcy, presenter of the Radio 2 Sunday Half Hour, who is a persistent thorn in the flesh of the Catholic hierarchy and regularly demonstrates the kind of honest and courageous vulnerability that characterizes the true spirit of Saint Francis.

I’d visited The Graan occasionally over the four years that we’ve lived in Enniskillen, especially when we lived on the west side of the town, when it was a fairly feasible, if dodgy walk.  Unfortunately, being in the countryside,  and attracting a largely rural congregation, it has almost no other non-motoring worshippers (I’ve never seen another), and walking up the busy access road with people carriers and 4x4s constantly swooshing past, induces rather too much vulnerability and too little tranquillity of spirit.  Once in the grounds, the cars are corralled into a series of one-way parking lanes to ensure a speedy and efficient exodus at the end of Mass.  All very sensible, I’m sure, but it does give the place,  externally, at least, something of the feel of a theme park or drive-in burger bar. A couple of months ago, though, I discovered a back way which gave, in all senses, an alternative perspective…

This morning when I woke up the sky looked fairly optimistic, so I put on a long summer dress and sandals, planning to add a cardigan if the few clouds decided to consolidate.  It was the sort of dress that used to be impossible to wear while riding a bike, as the skirt would inevitably get bunched up between the wheel and brake blocks, bringing me to an ignominous stop and leaving the dress oil-stained and holey in a way that wasn’t even good on a Sunday.  A couple of years ago, however, MJ constructed a brilliant skirt guard, of the Continental variety, out of garden trellis, and since then I can be as flowing as I like.  It has the added advantage of making the bike, which is actually quite a good one, appear even less attractive to potential thieves.   Anyway, the point turned to be moot, as the clouds formed a substantial majority, and a dark grey one at that, and I changed into tights and a shortish skirt (quicker to dry).  I very rarely cycle in trousers, except for waterproof ones when it’s really pouring and I don’t wear special shoes, either, unless I’m going for a long ride on my little red Moulton which has cleated pedals.  These are the shoes I wore today

which are perfect for either cycling or walking, and a bit girlie all the same.

Here’s the rest of the stuff I took with me (clockwise, from the left):

1. Waterproof poncho that folds into its own pocket (from Millets, doesn’t have to be so garish, but I bought it for Glastonbury, and anyway it has its advantages as you’ll see later)

2. Spare linen bag for shopping on the way home (as Tim Minchin says, ‘Take your canvas bags…’)  Actually I ended up getting a carrier bag too (see below)

3. Camera case with velcro strap that attaches very conveniently to the handebars (and I put the camera strap over the handebar too, for extra security).  I don’t usually take a camera to church with me, obviously, even if we do have a celebrity priest…

4. Spare earphones (I’ve been caught that way too often).

5. Guardian linen backpack from Glastonbury last year – extremely convenient for carrying just a few things plus a reminder that this year’s is only ten days or so away…

6.iPod.  I usually take my other one, with classical music on it (nothing like a bit of baroque for the long slope) but as mentioned above, I’m in pre-Glastonbury mode now, and listening to stuff by this year’s line-up.

7. Phone.  If I was a more serious or less pampered cyclist this would be a puncture repair kit – instead I could use this to call MJ in an emergency.

8. Purse containing small change for collection mite (as in widow’s, not dust) and Sunday paper.

9. Tissues. I’ve been caught that way as well. One thing you can be sure of if you cycle anywhere, regardless of the weather and your state of health; your nose will be starting to run when you arrive.  And blowing it on your skirt isn’t nice, especially when you’ve jettisoned the long flowing one.

10. Deodorant.  Not generally necessary but on this particular trip, as you’ll see, I do tend to glow slightly by the end and it makes me feel a bit more nice to know, especially when the pews are crowded.

It takes around half a hour to cycle from here to The Graan but I like to allow an extra fifteen minutes or so to get my breath back and avoid the last-minute cars, so as the  service starts at 10.30, and I will be stopping to take photos, I plan to leave by 9.45 at the latest.  Putting animals inside and outside, and doling out their milk, takes a few extra minutes, but I am out by ten to ten.  Freewheeling down to the bottom of the road I meet our next-door-but-one  neighbour who, having failed by four votes on the third recount to become our M.P. is instead embracing his retirement with good-natured gusto and a brand new bicycle.

The road is fairly empty but I take my usual route towards town along the grandly-named Great Northern Way, an old railway path parallel with the road and mainly used by teenagers walking to and from school.  It’s a reasonable surface for cycling, without too much broken glass in comparison with the rest of the town, and fringed with trees and banks of wildflowers.

The song on my iPod is Jackson Browne’s Thunder and I wonder whether it is a bad omen – the sky is getting very dark. Half way along, the path crosses a road (with a couple of dog-legs to slow us cyclists down – very thoughtful, but wouldn’t it be safer for everyone to slow the cars?) and here a plump man with fluffy yellow hair and a pink T-shirt stares in amazement at me out of his BMW V5 window,  a giant toddler in a giant toy car.At the end of the GNW I cross the main road, and take a little dog-legged back road around the back of a terraced row (motorists use it as a short-cut too, so it’s a bit hazardous at school run time) onto Factory Road, past its long-derelict namesake

and the G.A.A. (Gaelic Athletic Association) ground, home to Fermanagh Gaelic football team (which won an unxpected victory against neighbouring Cavan yesterday, to local jubilation – far more important than that soccer thing in South Africa.)

After this the route comes off the road again, along a wooded path which skirts the edge of the hospital and health centre grounds, along the edge of Lough Erne.

The Erne Hospital is a pleasant little place, smelling of toast and mild disinfectant, beautifully situated next to the lake and in easy walking distance from the town centre and many of the larger housing estates.  So of course it is being replaced by a giant private finance initiative monstrosity several miles out, where everyone will no doubt have to drive (at great car parking profit to the developers) and toast smells are most unlikely.  The shell of the new hospital is virtually complete, after months of thick mud across the roads and local residents’ houses, and the workers (mostly Spanish, as the consortium is Spanish-owned) are preparing for the next two years of interior construction.  Presumably the site of the present hospital will then be flogged off for yet more luxury waterside apartments or chain-store shopping centres.  I don’t hold out much hope for this mellow old stone wall or the mature trees once that happens…

At the end of this path, under the road bridge, is a small island.  When we first moved here, four years ago, it was full of ducklings and cygnets.  Now there are none.  It’s the same story across the lough, at least in the Enniskillen area; fewer and fewer wildfowl every year.  We’ve only seen two cygnets this year, both on the small lough opposite our house.  No one official seems to be very concerned or even to have noticed the change.  We suppose it is due to a combination of factors; the massive amount of building during the so-called property boom when huge speculative blocks of flats were built which now stand empty, many unfinished, the enormous new premises of Waterways Ireland, ironically built on the marshlands it might have been expected to protect, the motorized cruisers with their powerful wakes, washing away delicate habitats and nests, the quantities of salt poured on the roads during the cold winter, now washed into the lough and increasingly chemical agricultural methods such as the intensive pig-farming which the WWF says is causing the eutrophication of Lough Erne.

Then I’m back on the road again, past the library and fortified police station and over the old bridge.  The rowers from Portora Royal School are out practising, which is great; a pity they’re usually accompanied by coaches in fast motor boats –  the wake from these often looks worse than the big cruisers.

The people round here are, on the whole, well-meaning and generous; they’ve gone through immensely difficult times with courage and compassion and are working to create a better society for the future.  But the lakes are so big and the population so small that they just don’t realize the fragility of the natural environment around them.

A few yards further on is the Round ‘O’, a park and jetty, and another example of destruction for the best of motives.  We used to stop here every morning on the way to school and feed the ducks and swans; often thirty or forty at a time.  But then, two years ago, the jetties were upgraded, the grassy banks replaced with tarmac and the muddy edge where the wildfowl wandered replaced with an access road so that boat-owners could drive right up to the lough.  Maybe it improved the amenity of the site for them, but the birds, and the tiny children who used  to toddle along the quiet paths have almost all gone.

After the Round O I pass the gates of Portora, where Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett were educated, and the other week Simon Callow gave a brilliant pre-premiere of his new Shakespeare one-man show.  From time to time we get these odd little treats here, and this, combined with the stunning countryside and genuine friendships, more than make up for the political oddities and the weather.

After Portora I’m on the Donegal Road, coming out of Enniskillen and soon turn onto the Derrygonnelly road, and the hard bit of the ride.  It’s not very hard, really, just a long shallow rise past the recycling centre, the oil depot (most houses are heated with oil around here) and the quarry.  I use my usual technique of looking into the verge, at the masses of wild flowers, which takes my mind off my calf muscles.

The song on my iPod is Turin Brakes’ Long Distance, though, and it’s starting to feel like it. But The Graan comes visible quite soon and just when I’m feeling that I’ve really been riding for long enough (it’s been raining for some time now, but not hard enough to make it worth unpacking my poncho and is windier than usual), I reach the little side turning and the final road up to the monastery.

I usually stop halfway up the hill here to lock my bike  and make myself respectable, but the farmer (presumably) who owns the cows has parked his Landrover there and is leaning thoughtfully over the fence.

“A good way to be travelling.” he says, by way of greeting, nodding at my bike, and I grin and pant past.  This bit is steep, that’s why I’m usually walking it, and I’m down to first gear now and feeling distinctly rosy.  I stop around the next corner, lock my bike to the fence, comb my hair, blow my nose and bung on a bit more deodorant.   Then I walk up the rest of the hill, past the main part of the monastery, which is now a nursing home

and into the church.  At first when I did this I felt a bit awkward about being damp and red-faced amongst the soignée attendees strolling in from their cars, but I don’t think there was really any need.  I’m still glowing a bit  through the first readings, but by the time we stand for the Gospel I’m back into equilibrium.  No one is moving away from me, anyway, and at the sign of the peace my neighbours are all happy to shake my hand.  Anyway, not everyone here is a middle-aged motorist; there are quite a few residents of the nursing home sitting in their wheechairs teaching us more acutely than a mere cyclist about vulnerability and patience.

During the sermon I can hear the rain pattering hard on the roof, but during the Creed the stained glass windows light up optimistically.  I’m hoping for a bit of sunshine when we go out, but it is still raining, and harder, so I put my poncho on before unlocking the bike.  It should have the extra advantage of making me extremely visible, but I switch on my dynamo lights as well, just in case. The view from here is still marvellous,  anyway, despite the raindrops on the lens.

The obverse of the tedious ride up to The Graan is the easy sail down again; I can do almost the whole of the stretch to the Donegal Road without turning the pedals.  I note the state of decay of the fox that was run over a few weeks ago, but decide that you’d probably prefer not to have a picture.  The visibility of the poncho certainly works; a Mercedes driver signals and pulls out a good ten feet despite the fact that I’m tucked well into a layby, taking pictures of the view.  Talking of which…

At the junction I stop at the petrol station shop for the Observer. They’re good for local produce too, so I get some potatoes and blackcurrant jam.  I now realise the deficiencies in Tim Minchin’s lyric writing.  What he should have written was, ‘Take your canvas bags to the supermarket, but if it looks like rain and you’re planning to get a Sunday paper, don’t forget to bring along a reused plastic one as well, so that you don’t end up with a soggy wedge of dirty sludge.’  But since he didn’t, and I didn’t, I had to take a new one. When I come out, the rain has stopped, or almost (making my carrier bag even more reprehensible) , so I take off my poncho and enjoy a refreshing and uneventful ride back home.   Unfortunately there are more cars on the road now, and I’m overtaken with inches to spare by three black 4x4s in a row, followed by a courteous Daimler who gives me plenty of room.   The drivers of vintage cars are generally the most thoughtful, and the giant new monstrosities the least, forgetting that a cyclist is both alive and moving, and therefore appreciates a little more leeway than you would give a traffic cone.   On the Great Northern Way a group of birds fly across the path in front of me; at least one a big rosy-breasted bullfinch.  They flew into this tree, if you’d like to look for them.

The whole trip, including the service itself, shopping and stopping to take photographs, has taken about two hours and twenty minutes; maybe an hour more than it would have taken by car (if I’d had one.) But I’d have had to go on the main roads, and would have missed all the most enjoyable bits of the journey, as well as the scents of the flowers, the close-up birds, the smell of the cleansed air after the rain, the feel of the air on my face  (and, to be quite honest,  the sight of the dead fox).  I’d also still have my recommended mild exercise to do, for which I might even have driven to the gym, at the cost of yet more time, money and oil.  I’d have missed the friendly farmer, and might have had a more definitive encounter with the pink T-shirted toddler-man, and I wouldn’t have that pleasant almost-ache in my knees that tells me that I’ve done the right thing with them, and can enjoy a substantial dinner without any nagging twinges of nutritional conscience.  Talking of which…

A question of balance

This afternoon  I was packing M&S goodies into my rucksack and the dry bag I use on the back rack in this inclement weather (both from Alpkit, by the way, and surviving well, both around town and at Glastonbury) when the nice man at the checkout (Marks in Enniskillen have remarkably nice people at their checkouts) asked whether I wasn’t afraid that it would make my bike very wobbly to ride.

Now of all the myriad things I worry about, instability owing to moderate grocery haulage hasn’t so far featured very prominently.  Of course there have been times when I’ve been carried away by spatial optimism, overriding the little brain mechanism that tells me pretty infallably how much I can fit on my back and carrier, and ended up having to balance an evil carrier bag on the handlebars.  This isn’t recommended,  even apart from environmental considerations, unless the journey from the supermarket to your house is a gentle and unbroken curve with no need to stop, start again or turn in any radical manner.  But this was an extremely moderate load, undertaken primarily to use this week’s £5 off voucher and including no additional bags nor any ironing board, oil painting* or other sail-like structure liable to catch the prevailing wind and lead me where I would not go.  In these happy circumstances, so long as the bag is well bungeed to the rack and is itself strong enough to bear its contents (a post from eighteen months ago or so recounts my picking up potatoes from the middle of the road escapades),  there’s no reason for any unusual wobbles.

Front carriers can be a bit trickier, as we found when G and I rode hired bikes with front baskets to the Co-op  in Lucca and filled them with Tavernello and parmigiano.  Distinct meanderings there, and we hadn’t even broached the wine cartons… I suppose it’s simply the fact that anything on the front compromises the handlebars, whereas at the back the worst it can do is weigh down your back wheel so that, with a heavy load, you can relax at the traffic lights and find your front wheel making a bid for the stars.

A bit like this. The bike pictures, by the way, on this and the last post are from Jan Boonstra’s amazing collection of bicycle gifs.

*As we once (in Italy, of course) saw being transported by bike, under the rider’s arm.

The Tale of the Muttons Part IV

Just as the whales were getting really nervous, certain enterprising Unmerry Ones began digging in the ground for a new liquid* which they called “Oy y’all!” after the cry they uttered upon finding it. Oy y’all had, like Cole, taken hundreds of millions of years to form, and had once been tiny creatures and algae that had fallen to the prehistoric ocean floor and been buried under mud and sediment. Like Cole, it contained enormous reserves of energy, and like Cole, it was sold and burned as quickly as it could be pumped out of the ground. With the help of government tax breaks (not to be the last) Oy y’all, suitably refined, soon became the fuel of choice for Mutton lamps and lubrication.

There was one annoying by-product of the refining process, an extremely nasty form of Oy y’all which the Unmerry Ones called Gaz O’Lean and the Angry-Sackmen called Pet Roll. This stuff was too revolting for any use except to kill lice on Mutton children’s heads (what became of the children is not recorded) and most of it ended up being dumped in streams and rivers. This was irritating to the Oy y’all barons, not because they cared particularly what happened to streams and rivers (most of them would soon have their own swimming pools) but because the Gaz O’Lean wasn’t making them any money. Something would have to be done about that.

Meanwhile, back in the Old World, a quiet revolution was taking place. Two revolutions, to be exact, one a foot or so behind the other. For a long time far-sighted members of the flock had been toying with the idea of a Mutton-powered wheeled method of personal transport. They had begun by simply making a model of one of their four-legged friends, adding wheels where its hooves would have been, and scooting the contraption along with their feet. This had the dual effect of wearing out their shoes far more quickly than ordinary walking would have done, and of creating great hilarity among the Mutton onlookers.

But the visionaries were not down-hearted (a little bruised from time to time, but not downhearted) and over time they gradually got rid of the more anthropomorphic aspects of the contraption, replacing the animal’s body with a simple triangular framework, discarding two of the four wheels and adding pedals, brakes and air-filled tyres. The machine was no longer a hobby-horse, pedestrian curricle or velocipede; it was a Byk, and everybody wanted one. Even the Angry-Sackmen’s queen, a less bellicose monarch than old Bus, ordered a specimen of the three-wheeled variant to pedal herself around the palace gardens.

It wasn’t queens, though, or even the writers, artists and philosophers who took up Byking with such eccentric enthusiasm, who benefited most from the new invention. For the first time, ordinary Muttons, who could never have afforded to buy or look after a saddled animal of their own, could travel significantly further and faster than their feet could carry them. The Byk was, and still is, the most efficient form of Mutton transport ever, was cheap to buy and didn’t need stabling, feeding or rubbing down when it got too hot. The combination of the Byk and cheap train travel meant that city-dwelling Muttons no longer had to live in huddled hovels close to their workplaces; they could move out a few miles to healthier, more spacious houses where their children could breathe clean air and drink clean water. In the countryside, Muttons could Byk beyond their own villages in search of love, ending centuries of enfeebling inbreeding.

For female Muttons the Byk was especially liberating; suddenly they were throwing away the ridiculous tent-like contraptions they had been clothed in and exploring the world beyond the chaperonage of their fathers and husbands.

Of course, not everyone liked the Byk, least of all the wealthiest of male Muttons. What was the point of being stinking rich if it didn’t mean that you could travel further and faster than the slightly smelly poor? Where was the great benefit of masculinity if mere females were to revel in the same freedoms? Worst of all, the Byk was losing them money. More and more young Muttons were spending their free time pedalling about the countryside, spending almost nothing except a few pennies on a bit of bread and cheese. Sales of tobacco, alcohol and other luxuries were plummeting. There was money to be made in Byks themselves, of course, but it wasn’t the kind of easy pickings that the rich Muttons liked, not like the money gushing out of the ground in the form of Oy’all. Indeed, the name of one Oy’all-dealing Mutton, known as Flockaseller for his habit of bankrupting his neighbours, had already become synonymous with obscene and frankly ridiculous levels of wealth. There had to be something that Flockaseller and his cronies could do to get ordinary Muttons off their Byks and back to the important business of spending money they couldn’t afford on stuff they didn’t need. And if that something could involve getting rid of the unpleasant, unwanted Gaz O’Lean, so much the better.

*New to them, that was; other, quieter Muttons had been using it for four thousand years or so.

2 – 1 = a start…

For a few years when we lived in and around Yorkshire we had two cars. It began more or less by accident, with an inherited Montego, and ended entirely so, with a shunt in the middle of Leeds from a young man in a hurry and his girlfriend’s father’s uninsured Rover. While our car was being repaired we realised that we could manage without it, asked the garage to sell it, and used part of the proceeds to buy a trio of Trek hybrid bikes for us and our eldest son and a Burleigh trailer for the little ones. M would cycle the twenty miles to York station to catch his train to work and I would occasionally, in exceptionally fine weather, take the boys to nursery in their trailer, by an idyllic path that skirted fields and went through the middle of a almost certainly enchanted wood.

Milan trip

Note: As of January 1st 2010 I’m moving to new WordPress software, so all earlier entries are dated as December 28th 2009. They actually range from the summer of 2008 to autumn 2009. If you need to know a specific date for anything, please let me know.

In May I went to Milan to buy Italian books and to have a look around the bookshops to see what new stuff was out. I decided to travel by bus, ferry and train again, as I did last year (see September & October 2008 posts) when I went to Lucca. It’s taken a long time to get my notes and pictures uploaded, partly because we’ve moved house in the interim, but here, at last, they are:

Thursday May 14th



Enniskillen bus station is enjoying its usual collection of eccentrics, including a female mallard who has wandered in from the lough and is being fed by an elderly man with pieces of jam doughnut.  Meanwhile another man, maybe ten years younger, is expounding to his companion a matter of biological curiosity.

“These English,” he says, in a tone of scientific detachment, tinged with wonder, “I don’t know where they come from but they can all swim.”


The Bus Eireann coach for Dublin pulls in, exotic with its racing setter logo, against the dull blue of the Ulsterbuses.  We travel down the rather boring N3, too far west for the sophistication of Belfast;  not nearly far enough for the glamour of Galway and Clare.  Election posters, huge flapping faces, hang from almost every lamp post, and the small towns have shops with names like Keltic Kuts and greyish G.A.A. grounds.  In between, the countryside is pimpled with concrete bungalows which almost, but not quite succeed in masking the soft blue-green beauties of the landscape.  On small lakes men potter in fishing boats, indistinguishable from their ancestors except for their outboard motors.


“Five minutes smoke time.” announces the African bus driver as we reach Cavan.  A small takeaway near the bus station offers “Probably the best pizza on the planet”.  What fun if it were true.




After Cavan the clouds shift, and the first glimmers of sunshine filter through, onto spindly colts and cows lying with their spines at right angles like half collapsed tents.  I listen to my iPod, soft music to match the greens, surely more than forty shades in the strengthening sun. 




In Dublin, I think I see more bikes than before, their commuting riders armoured in helmets and fluorescent vests.   I take a taxi to the ferry terminal, as the so-called connecting bus is due to arrive ten minutes after check-in is supposed to finish.  It would be grand, of course, but if I miss this ferry then the whole journey collapses, domino-style, so I don’t feel confident relying on Irish insouciance. 


As usual, the ferry port is a human place to wait, with space, fresh air and a relaxing absence of Tannoy announcements and people trying to sell you things. It’s a real port, with rows of Guiness tankers lined up waiting, a reminder that there is more going on in the world than just holidays, even if it’s only drinking. My new four wheeled suitcase is a delight on its marble floors – less like lugging luggage and more like taking a preternaturally obedient dog for a walk. 


As I wait to check in I read John Betjeman on the pleasures of cycling, slow trains and the unexpected joys of wartime simplicity.  He writes that Bradshaw, of the famous train timetable, was a Quaker and a ‘great worker for peace’.  One of the hoariest canards of literary history is that Bejeman and C. S. Lewis loathed one another, but when Betjeman attended the public enquiry into the proposed nuclear (or ‘atomic’ as it was called then, probably just as logically) power station near Maldon, Essex (Bradwell, now decommissioned but being considered for ‘redevelopment’) it was of Lewis’s That Hideous Strength that he was reminded by the suited managers of the Central Electricity Board. 




On board the Irish Ferries Ulysses, the narrator of the safety announcement begins with a surprisingly English accent, like an old-fashioned BBC presenter, becoming more Irish as he continues, as if Alan Dedicoat were slowly morphing into Terry Wogan.


The Ulysses is the biggest car ferry in the world, but there is only one half deck where passengers are allowed to go outside.  After an unintentional detour to the first class and truck drivers’ lounges, I eventually find the Ruby Stairs that lead to freedom.  Outside are a few men huddled in the bus shelter designated as the ‘smoking zone’ but no one else to witness our departure from Dublin.  Not that there is much to see; dark grey silhouettes in the air force blue twilight and ranks of distant lights.


The rooms on the Ulysses have Joycean names; the Stephen Dedalus suite and the Nora Barnacle Brasserie.  On my next trip, to Glastonbury with the boys, we will take the other ferry, the high-speed Swift which turns out to have, painted on its side, the full name of the venerable Dean, but disappointingly no Lilliputian Lounge or Brobdingnagian Bistro.  Meanwhile, two tables away, a man is groaning in his sleep – Finnegan’s far from awake.



Friday May 15th




The waiting area at Holyhead is very cold, and the metal seating rigid and chilled, its perforations painful to every part of the anatomy and its fixed armrests a piece of egregiously bureaucratic callousness.




A delicious relief to be on the train for London.  I sleep better than I can ever remember doing in a seat, though not well enough to avoid hearing the long debate between the ticket collector and a vague Irishman who has lost his ticket and refuses to buy another.  He is ejected at Chester and threatened with the Transport Police, a fate at which he is singularly unimpressed.




On the Euston Road I join the throng of patient scholars waiting for the British Library to open.  It seems a sensible place to spend an hour or two before I have to be at St Pancras, provided that they will let me in with my monstrous suitcase.  It turns out that they will, though I spend a good quarter of my time trundling it up and down ramps before I find the right place to leave it.  There is just time then to visit a few of the manuscripts on display – drafts of Persuasion, Jane Eyre and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and to gaze up at the the King’s Library, a magnificent block of patchwork leather and gilt.


Having been reading John Betjeman, I want to pay my respects at his statue, but come into St Pancras from the wrong end, and can’t negotiate the crowds with my suitcase.  I make do with remembering what I can of his writing about the station, how it was built as the London terminus of the Midland Railway, after the other companies had already erected their own London edifices, and required a bridge to be built over the canal and the levelling of the old Saint Pancras burial ground.  One of the assistant architects was Thomas Hardy and the experience of supervising the exhumation and reburial of the bodies did nothing to lighten his sepulchral gloom.  Because of the bridge, the line finished in mid-air, hence the station’s cathedralesque high roof, while the distance between the columns is said to have been measured by the Burton-on-Trent beer barrels which were the Midland’s principal freight.


12 noon.


The Eurostar is crowded but polite, with most of the passengers reading books.  Last time I took the train to Italy was just after the fire in the tunnel, so we took the Eurolines coach instead, all noise and jostling and music and rumbling discontent.  By contrast, this is sanitized travel, very Home Counties.  I slept through the tunnel and woke up thinking that we were still in England with a grey drizzling sky, poplar trees and concrete.

Suddenly we jerk to a grating halt.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” comes the announcement.  “We ‘ave stopped.”  He promises, in a French accent strongly flavoured with Essex, to find out why, but within a minute we have set off again. 




In Paris I have nearly five hours before my train to Italy, so I decide to walk from the Gare du Nord to Bercy.  This goes moderately well, as the suitcase behaves itself on the whole, only occasionally deciding to run over my toes.  It looks like less than three miles on the map but takes me over two hours, including the stops to stock up with bread and cheese and the demented wanderings up and down the rue Bercy, having by now completely lost my bearings.




I am the first to reach our coach, the very last on the Stendhal overnight train to Milan, and despite the lack of numbers for our couchette, manage to locate my bunk.  On the top, thank goodness.  After travelling in a six-berth couchette last time I’ve belatedly taken the advice of the Man in Seat 61 and gone for the four berth this time.  This means that I have only three companions: a young French girl with an astonishing quantity of luggage, a middle-aged Frenchman and a glamorous Russian girl who does her hair up at night with those bendy foam curlers and sprays the couchette with perfume in the morning.


I’d bought a bottle of wine with a screw top as I was walking through Paris but can’t get it open now, so settle for a frugal and sober piece of baguette and chunk of goat’s cheese.  I have another, more exciting cheese, a Saint-Marcellin, about which Wikipedia notes that ‘Its degree of runniness increases with age’ This particular piece has evidently passed the limits of senility as it has already oozed out of the packet, filling the couchette with the ripe odour so eloquently described by Jerome K. Jerome .


“A few moments passed, and then the old gentleman began to fidget.

“Very close in here,” he said.

“Quite oppressive,” said the man next him.

And then they both began sniffing, and, at the third sniff, they caught it right on the chest, and rose up without another word and went out. And then a stout lady got up, and said it was disgraceful that a respectable married woman should be harried about in this way, and gathered up a bag and eight parcels and went. The remaining four passengers sat on for a while, until a solemn-looking man in the corner, who, from his dress and general appearance, seemed to belong to the undertaker class, said it put him in mind of dead baby; and the other three passengers tried to get out of the door at the same time, and hurt themselves.”

(Three Men in a Boat, Chapter Four)

Fortunately I have with me an almost inexhaustible supply of small plastic bags and manage to imprison the Saint-Marcellin in almost decent obscurity before the others arrive.





I’m feeling a bit miserable now.  Last time I did this journey it was with my son, who seems very far away now in Australia and though I’m very tired from the previous night on the Holyhead benches, I can’t sleep properly until the Frenchman finally switches off the central light.  Maybe I should get one of those eye masks.



Saturday May 16th




I wake from what feels like a proper sleep at last, and am filled immediately with the elation of being in Italy, as unmistakable as the mild depression induced in France.  At Milan’s Stazione Centrale the loos aren’t open yet so I sit on a marble bench near a couple of suspicious lurking young men.  As soon as they speak, I realize that they are simply American students straight out of a frat-boy comedy; no doubt the most dangerous of all from a global point of view but reassuring from my selfish perspective.  I sort out my suitcase – Saint Marcellin is still with me, faintly stinking through his polythene.  I can’t work out quite which of the carefully colour co-ordinated recycling bins ought to be his next home.


A Parisian woman and her little girl, about four years old,  join me for a while and we have fun naming objects in English and French.  They were on the same train and are here to spend a few days with the woman’s boyfriend who works in Milan. 

At around six o’clock he arrives and I set off for my hotel to drop off the suitcase.  I follow the hotel website’s instructions to take the tram, which means a long trudge around looking for the right stop but then only a short wait before the tram arrives.  On this line the trams are old traditional ones with lovely wooden benches along the sides.  An announcement tells us which stop we will reach next, but the creaks and squeaks of the ancient wood and iron make it almost impossible to hear.  Somehow, despite, this,  I manage to clamber down – the tram floor is a good few feet higher than the road, at more or less the right place.





At the hotel, the Ariston, celebrated for its organic and recycled stuff, I’m overjoyed to hear that my room is ready – I’d expected only to be able to leave my case and to have to wander unwashed around Milan until three o’clock.  But as it is, I can have a shower before setting out to the Saturday street markets.




The first of these is easy to find but no good for me, having only clothes and a few food stalls: fruit and vegetables, fish and cheese.  Heading for the second, I disastrously confuse the Strada Alzaia Naviglio Grande with the Strada Alzaia Naviglio Pavese and walk several miles before I realise that I am skirting entirely the wrong canal and have walked several miles in the wrong direction.  It wasn’t even an interesting detour, consisting mainly of garages and apartment blocks, but the way back was at least straightforward, and the market, when I eventually found it, had plenty of useful book stalls.  Waiting for the tram to take me back to the hotel,  my rucksack straps digging into my shoulders, I fleetingly wonder whether I should have taken up their free bike hire offer, but the combination of my lack of sleep, the tramlines criss-crossing the road and the unbalanced loads of books make me glad I haven’t risked it.  Next time, maybe.  I drop the books back at the hotel and wander into the city centre – on foot again – mooching around the bookshops, piazzas and park. 


On the tram stops are paper notices advertising the fact that the routes will be changed tomorrow morning to accommodate the Giro (the big Italian cycle race, the equivalent of the Tour de France), the next stage of which will be held in the city centre.  I hardly dare to believe it, and phone home to check.  Martin managed to see it during both years that we lived in Italy and I joked before I left that perhaps it would come near Milan this weekend.  It seemed too forlorn a hope even to make it worth looking at the route before I set out.  But now, whatever else I need to do tomorrow, I resolve to try to catch a glimpse of it.






The hotel doesn’t have a restaurant but the barman has stuff he can heat up, so I stay there and eat a risotto – my first proper meal since Thursday lunchtime, before collapsing on my bed in front of the Italian news and a dubbed version of Beethoven (the film with the St Bernard dog, not a biopic of the composer).  After Beethoven comes another, even more sentimental dubbed family film with two orphaned sisters, a collection of resolutely pre-Vatican Two nuns, a pair of evil burglars (who intriguingly used MacBooks to plan their dastardly crimes) a rich and wholesome young couple, a plump Latino housekeeper and an anal-retentive mayor who, by the closing credits, sees the error of his ways.  Oh, and holding the whole thing together, an extremely large and endearing dog.  I’m sure you can deduce the plot from the above elements (and probably also name the film and to what extent it was sponsored by Microsoft). Films like this are most comforting in allowing me to imagine that my Italian listening skills are passable – the fact that an intellectually challenged oyster could work out what was going on if the film was dubbed in Klingon doesn’t really register.


 I have a vague idea that a very early night would be advisable, but ought to know better…





Some sort of male celebration has been going on outside for the past half hour: cars being driven around with full-throated horns and roaring cheers. It occurs to me that if I heard such a din in Northern Ireland I would be at least annoyed and probably rather frightened.  I don’t know whether the actual sounds here are unthreatening or whether it’s just that I know it’ll be a question of football.  I don’t know which victory, though; didn’t notice anything particular on the news.  I hope it’s not Manchester United who, even the Italian news report, secured the Premier League title today by drawing with Arsenal.  Surely the evil tentacles of globalization haven’t quite reached so far.  Unless it’s an eve-of-Giro-tappa-celebration, which would make it even more Italian and even less irritating; hard to imagine British youths welcoming a bike race with such gusto, Sir Chris Hoy or no.


Another fifteen minutes and the din is redoubled.  A good thing that I wasn’t really attached to the early night plan.



Sunday May 17th

The Giro is due to start at eleven, so I am ready and waiting at the Piazzo Duomo by twenty past ten.  I really ought to know better.  At around one o’clock, after urgent conversations by telefonini and radios, and lots of typically Italian civic stuff with school children and local dignitaries, the first special guests begin to arrive for the opening ceremony.  By now I am bright red from the sun and have changed places in the piazza countless times in the hope of finding a good viewpoint. 

But today the gods, or maybe Saint Ambrose, are looking after me for I find myself in a blessed corner with a good view of the stage.  What’s more, I am just one row back from the arriving corridori (riders, not corridors) and V.I.P.s (pronounced Veeps in Italy).  To my joy, the first Veep is our old Lucchese neighbour Mario Cipolini who used to go on practice rides past our house and one glanced quizzically, but not without approval, at my little red Moulton.  After Mario come more superstars of Italian cycling; Paolo Bettini and Danilo di Luca, and finally, following a drawn out and teasing build-up, and description as a ‘space cowboy’ which I’m not sure he appreciates, Lance Armstrong.




After the opening ceremony I meander with the crowd to the Castello Sforzesco.  The race consists of eleven circuits of the city centre and the green area surrounding the Castello looks like one of the best vantage points.  I can sit in comfort on the grass, getting up when warned by the first police motorbike to stand at the side of the road to watch the peleton go by.  I watch three of the circuits consecutively, though I’m confused by the timing; according to my calculations they should reappear every ten minutes, but it turns out to be more like fifteen or twenty.  Later my arithmetic is to be vindicated but for now I just assume that I’ve got in a mental muddle. 




Before the fourth I decide to pause my transformation into a lobster – two Senegalese traders have already remarked on my colour, one suggesting that I will soon look like him – so I go into the shady Castello and pay my three euro entry fee for the complex. This includes six museums, but I miss out the prehistoric and Egyptian ones and most of the furniture, being totally overwhelmed by the sculpture and paintings including Michelango’s unfinished Rondanini Pieta (more mysterious and moving than the smooth perfection of the Vatican version) and pictures by Filippo Lippi and Canaletto.  I’ve never been to the big Italian art galleries – not even the Uffizi – but this one is completely breathtaking, even more so as it is so quiet and empty.  I wonder whether they’d get more visitors if they charged twenty euro but meanwhile am profoundly grateful and determined to come back again with more time.  There is also a museum of musical instruments with weird nineteenth century guitars that I might use to tempt the boys into a future trip.




Afterwards I go to mass at the Cathedral, visit a few more bookshops, listen to a brass band and stop for a pizza.  At the table behind me an Australian is explaining to a couple of Americans that he stayed in Italy for a couple of extra days after his business trip in order to see the Giro.  When the Americans leave, I ask him whether he saw the finish.  It turns out that the riders had safety concerns about the route (he didn’t know exactly what, but I wonder whether it might be at least partly those ubiquitous tram lines, which are a perfect size to trap a wheel) and so they made a collective decision to ride deliberately slowly for most of the race.  At the last circuit the sprinters were let off the leash and Mark Cavendish won, with an Ozzie (sorry, I’ve forgotten who) in second. 

Meanwhile an impromptu demonstration in the piazza sort of solves the mystery of last night’s hilarity – a football team (Inter, I think) have won something significant (come top of Seria A?). No doubt someone can put me right.




Laden with books, I collect my suitcases from the hotel and clamber up into the number 2 tram with the help of a quick-witted passenger.  At the Stazione Centrale I take the lift into the waiting room, which, with its wooden pew-like benches and collection of the weary and derelict, makes me think of nothing so much as a Victorian workhouse. 




The train, another sleeper back to Paris, is on the platform before eleven – a pleasant surprise, as I had expected it to come from Venice.  I am the youngest person in the couchette this time, which feels odd; I had expected to be the oldest.  There would have been a much younger occupant – one of around four months – but his grand-mere has accidentally booked the top book for him and his mother so a middle-aged Italian woman from another compartment swaps places with them.  The other two are both French – a man in his late sixties and a large woman who decides to keep her suitcase on her bunk and consequently spreads herself across the floor.  At some stage during the night she unhooks the ladder to the top bunks in order to better accommodate her legs, leaving the Italian woman and I, in an emergency, with the only expedient of launching ourselves into her lap. Fortunately, no such eventuality occurs.




Monday May 18th




The walk and metro journey from Paris Bercy to the Gare du Nord involves a lot of steps but fortunately also a lot of gallant Frenchmen to help with the larger of the suitcases.  I suspect that a few regret the chivalrous impulse – they probably assume it to be full of clothes, rather than books, but none are so craven as to abandon it mid-flight.  It later occurs to me that I am wearing a flowered smock top of what could be construed as maternity cut, which may account for some of the gallantry.  At the Gare du Nord soldiers are strolling around in camouflage gear – camouflage for a jungle, that is, or a dense forest, and rather more conspicuous amidst the grey suits and fawn raincoats of the French in Monday morning motion.  I notice that it is only the youngest and most timid looking of the soldiers who are armed, but don’t know whether to be reassured or alarmed by this. 




Nothing much to say about Eurostar – again it’s incredibly bland compared with other train journeys or other ways to cross the Channel (apart from flying, of course, which is the essence of homogeneity). The passengers, whether English or not, all appear to come from Maidenhead and are polite, reserved and uncommunicative.  There is no tension, not even a whisper of the exciting confusions and unbearable frustrations of the Eurolines coach.





fFrom St Pancras I walk to Euston, which is trickier than expected, ploughing into a headwind so strong that it blows down a seven foot weighted pavement sign advertising the Betjemanesque café, which in turn narrowly misses a couple of young Asian tourists.  I leave my cases at left luggage and head for the British Museum, partly because the loos are clean and free, partly to provide a bit of symmetry to my outward visit to the British Library and partly to have a mooch around another room or two.  A couple of years ago I used to go to London quite regularly for the boys’ trips to the Magic Circle and got into the habit of calling into the B.M. for an hour or so at a time.  It’s much less tiring that way, and gives the chance to see a few things properly rather than to leave bombarded with mummies, amphorae and a sense of archaeological indigestion.  Now I visit a nice little exhibition of eighteenth century miniatures, drawings and watercolour portraits – pleasant and interesting enough but a little insipid after the wonders of the Castello Sforzesco.  There is a late Michelangelo cartoon, though, which I am sitting in front of almost exactly twenty-four hours after standing before the unfinished Pieta.  The most moving thing in the museum today for me isn’t an artifact at all, but a simple wall display in a single frame about the effect of the Iraq war on the country’s historical sites and treasures.  It doesn’t say much, which makes its criticism the more bitter, quietly illustrated by before and after photographs and a picture of the Allied military base hammered into the site of Babylon itself.




The sky is a bright blue as we pull out of Euston but by Milton Keynes it is a grey fuzz.  A little further northwest pinkish gaps appear and as we pass the first canals and redbrick farmhouses of the Midlands, the soft green curves are lit with a slanting golden light.  I wrote about the Shire last time, so I won’t repeat myself, but there are real narrowboats and canalside pubs, and healthy looking Friesans and barns with geometric brick decoration, and a kind of settled, humble peace that you don’t find at either end of the journey, either in Ireland or Italy.  I slept through this part of the journey on the way out and now, vaguely aware of  how close we will come to my family and home town, I feel rather like Mole in Wind in the Willows when he unexpectedly comes across the entrance to his burrow.  But I still don’t realise until we’re almost there, that we are going right through Stafford itself, past the playing fields of my primary school and a few yards from my parents’ house.  I jump up to look out of the opposite window in case they are taking an evening stroll through the Doxey Marshes (though I don’t even know whether the marshes are strollable without waders).  Before I sit down again I’m ready to explain my eccentric behaviour, but this is England and everyone is studiously pretending that they haven’t noticed. 




It is dark for the last part of the journey, around the Welsh coastline, though the red-painted benches on Colwyn Bay station are jolly.  One other passenger in the Quiet Coach has travelled all the way to Holyhead from London, a gentle wispy old Irishman who moved his bags at Euston to make way for my big cases.  He offers to help me move them from the train platform to the ferry terminal but all I need is a guide to follow in the near-blackness.  It is almost eleven, and we have nearly four hours to wait for the ferry, but this is the last direct train from London, and I didn’t want to have to cart the cases from train to train at Chester and maybe end up stranded there.  “I’ve missed this ferry many a time,” says the old man in a wistful tone.


Before sitting down, I take out as much of my laundry as is decent and pad the metal chair with it.  It doesn’t exactly feel luxurious but I remind myself of what the cold punched surface would be like otherwise.  A small girl comes to tell me that she is staying up all night, but is called away sharply by her mother. 




My notes stop here, and I’m not sure, writing this up three months later, whether there was nothing else to say or whether I was just too tired to say it.  I remember an extraordinarily comfortable red leather sofa on the ferry, upon which I slept instantly and deeply, the bus from the ferry port into Dublin, during which my suitcase made frequent bids for liberty via the ankles of a polite African and the bliss of settling down on the back seat of the first morning bus from Dublin to Enniskillen.  The suitcase had its revenge on the walk home from Enniskillen bus station, mangling one of its wheels, but has now been replaced by a ready and willing clone.  Apart from that little blip, the journey was an astonishing success, with no significant delays or frustrations, lots of opportunities for fascinating people-watching, a few interesting conversations, a bit of art, a lot of books and the unexpected excitement of a world-class cycling race. And a glimpse of Mario and the Space Cowboy.  You don’t get all that on Ryanair.


I don’t know why I hadn’t come across it before, but better late… Highly recommended, especially for those days, like today, when all drivers appear to be blithering idiots. I was forced off the road at lunchtime today by a farmer in a 4×4 (glossy Japanese one, not old Defender) pulling a trailer full of horned rams. He overtook me coming up to the (red) traffic lights, then as soon as the car was past me, pulled abruptly into the left so that the trailer swung in behind him. Luckily I was looking out and managed to scramble on to the pavement before my bike and I were crushed between the trailer wheels and the kerb, with the added excitement of being impaled by the horns sticking out between the bars. Ho hum. Yesterday another one (farmer, not ram) drove past as I was waiting to cross the road to the cycle lane, parped his horn, gave a thumbs-up sign and continued driving at seventy miles an hour with his horn playing like an Italian wedding party. Too much carbon monoxide, I guess.


M’s ordered a new bike, which we hope is going to be this – the men’s version of mine (Specialized Globe City with hub gears and dynamo). I hope so, as mine has been totally brilliant – wonderful not to have to stop en route to put a chain back on or fiddle about with batteries on dark evenings (or rather afternoons, this time of year). It’s on its way, so we should know soon…

Day Seven: Lucca to somewhere in northern Italy

At around nine in the morning, when the little electric carts are still trundling around the streets, cleaning and collecting rubbish, I go into Lucca to visit the church of San Frediano. The saint is said to have brought Christianity to Lucca in, I think, the sixth century from his native Ireland, then the “land of saints and scholars” where I don’t remember what he was called, but am pretty sure that it wasn’t Frediano. Probably plain Fred to his mates. Inside is the mummified body of another of my favourite saints, Zita. She was a servant to a rich Lucchese family and had got into the habit of giving away bread from the household kitchen to the poor of the city. One day her master caught her sneaking outside, holding up the corners of her apron to make an improvised bag.

“What have you got in there?” he asked.”Only flowers,” she replied and dropped the apron corners. To, I suppose, the astonishment of both, this turned out to be the literal truth, as what had been chunks of solid Tuscan bread floated down to the floor in delicate petals. Zita’s body now rests in a glass box, wearing a lacy dress, a brown and wizened little Snow White, waiting for her Prince at the resurrection.

I wander back to the Hotel Rex, passing the statue of Puccini and the Piazza Napoleone, or Piazza Grande as the locals call it. Checking out, I am given a regalo – a small wrapped present which turns out to be a ceramic plaque of Lucca’s two towers. It’s another thoughtful gesture from the excellent management and staff, by whom I’ve become more impressed every day. Having chosen the hotel without particularly high expectations, I’ve been really delighted by the place and it will certainly be my first choice next time.

G. has joined me from Pisa by now and leaving our bags at the hotel we go for lunch – my first proper meal since Wetherspoons at Victoria. Afterwards we visit Cicli Bizzari, the shop from where we bought our bikes when we lived here, and now hire a couple for the afternoon.

We ride up to Nozzano Castello, the village seven kilometers north-west of Lucca where we used to live, and pass our old house there. Suddenly I catch a glimpse of the next door neighbour Luglio, a kindly and exhuberant elderly man and wonderful gardener who used to call “Signora!” over the wall and pass me baskets of sturdy and delicious vegetables.

Now we pedal fast down the little side-alley and meet him at his gate. He’s doing well, except for trouble with his eyes, and we’re delighted to see him.

The river Serchio, which runs between Lucca and Nozzano, isn’t in such good shape. Near Nozzano, where we cycle along its banks, it is still healthy, but under the bridge the water level is low with a thick scum of algae. We’ve never seen it like this before, in the seven years we’ve been coming here.

We cycle through the twin villages of Nozzano Castello and Nozzano San Pietro, deserted in the siesta, and stop at the church and the lane that led to the back gate of our old house. There’s a car in the drive, so we don’t intrude any further.

Cycling around the walls of Lucca is an entirely pleasant experience, with no motor vehicles except for the odd maintenance van and plenty of room on the broad path for cyclists, pedestrians and other self-powered bods to spread out and give one another space. In the city streets it’s more tricky, with traffic on most of the roads and bands of less-than-alert tourists, but with plenty of bell-ringing most cyclists manage all right. Outside the walls it’s harder again, in the full force of Italian traffic aided and abetted by sporadic cycle lanes, random parking and little old ladies who insist on cycling on the left, against the flow of traffic. The final part of the journey back from Nozzano is hairier than the rest, as a basket full of pesto, Gran Padano and cheap Tavernello wine makes me wobble far more than I had expected, but we make it back in the correct number of pieces, drop off the bikes and go back to Lucca station and on to Firenze.

(I’d forgotten to mention, by the way, that at SMN station on the Tuesday were policemen on those wheeled platform scooters – are they called Segways? – that Niles in Frasier once borrowed. They seem ideal for the Italian polizia, allowing them to play boyishly when they’re not too busy, fidget in style and remain taller than anyone who comes to ask them a question.)

Now from SMN we go around to Campo di Marte and await the train for Paris. This is the point at which the fact that it starts in Rome, previously unconsidered, hits us with its true significance.

Forty minutes before the train is due it shows on the departure board as on time. Ten minutes ditto. Three minutes ditto, and we start gathering up the luggage and shrugging our shoulders into our backpacks. Then, without warning, the board changes. “In ritardo 100 minutes”. A hundred? That’s… Yes it is. To be fair, it’s only actually ninety-five minutes late, half past ten, when the train wheezes into the station. Not to worry, is my last thought, as I snuggle down in my bunk. Judging from the way we’re rattling along, we’ll have made up half the time before morning, if we don’t fall off the rails entirely.