Ugly Old Blind Bikers
Once upon a time there was three blind mice. Except that was a nursery rhyme and not true.
This time, there was one half blind chap and two other short sighted miscreants who required the miracles of modern science to see anything beyond the end of their frothy ale flecked noses. A plan was hatched long ago by these ‘three degrees’ (of insanity) to conquer the mountains of Fenland by bicycle. And so it was that King’s Lynn became host to three men and some bicycles.
Getting there from the dark North and the subtropical South West required the navigational skills of a maritime mathematician, long in the tooth and firm of buttock, who longs for a tall ship and a star to steer her by.
Mr Harris (pragmatic northerner) and Mr Tatham (a Newfoundland exile) trundled down the A1 in t’van while my good self braved the rain sodden waterways that pass for English motorways, from the south west. To say the weather was bad is to suggest that Satan may have been a tad dubious in character. I suggest that the Ms 5, 42 and 1 should be rebranded as canals given the amount of surface water sloshing about just waiting to throw the unwary driver into the back of a lorry. Every now and then, a thin sliver of sunlight crept in between the dark foreboding heavens to promise relief.
It never came.
A Frenchman in a bordello has been relieved more often and with less fear.
Kings Lynn, formerly Bishop’s Lynn, lies on the Great Ouse as it empties into the south eastern corner of the Wash. There are boats, mud and the odd scared goat. In the middle of town is the ‘Nip and Growler’, a real gem of a pub selling micro brewery ales, some of which will result in depilation of the nether regions. They are that good. The Campaign for Real Ale has a special section reserved for such hostelries, including vouchers for fast track entry to Accident and Emergency or the local asylum. They hand out moistened tissues at the bar in case of ‘accidents’. The ‘Nip’ is a few short steps away from the town square which was at one time host to witch burning. This part of the country had a reputation for its enthusiasm in engaging in faggot lighting in order to roast the toes and tits off the local women, and did so with the gusto of a Catholic priest with the keys to the dorm at a boys school. Legend has it that one poor wretch’s heart burst from her chest as she burned, and it then splattered onto the walls of a nearby house.
Her crime, and thus accusations of witchcraft, included being nice to squirrels, knowing the names of a wide variety of herbs to apply to festering sores and the plugging of orifices, and commenting on how certain fillets of fish would be fit for Jehovah.
That’s the church for you. You may bugger a goat with your ale soaked cousins, but don’t go picking lavender in case that is an act mistaken for spell casting. Women like picking herbs and flowers which goes to explain why they get mistaken for witches. Well, that and turning people into newts.
And the pointy hats.
Never mind, stories like that enhance the taste of ale and pies. So, suitably victualled first in the ‘Nip’ and then at a quayside eatery, the intrepid three retired to the B and B to dream of conquests new.
Prior to arriving in Fenland, Mr Harris and Mr Tatham had already been having far too much fun at the National Railway Museum near Darlington. In addition, culture was engaged in at various historic places of interest such as the the grave of the Vulnerable “oh, please don’t be mean to me” Bede, whose claim to a place in posterity rests upon his reading of some books on Jesus and his sheep.
“There will be pies”.
Breakfast. The French may have their croissants, and the Canadians their maple syrup, but by thunder a ‘Full English’ is second to none. Tourists may be forgiven for thinking a ‘Full English’ is a euphemism for the furtive arts practiced by ladies of a wayward reputation near the docks, but the sight of a sizzling snorker sitting alongside its various accompaniments should disavow them of more carnal thoughts. Our hostess served up three plates of the most joy you can have with your clothes on and your inhibitions off. The breakfast was of such high quality that we clean forgot to consider a spanking. You, dear reader, may wonder why a spanking would even be considered at all before breakfast. Suffice to say that there are times in an old man’s memory that recall such episodic ventures into the realms of fantasy.
Straight after breakfast, all kit was checked and ablutions completed. The bicycles had already been fettled and waited like the ‘stallions of steel’ they (nearly) were, straining at metaphorical leashes for the off.
Mr Harris’s bike was a wonder to behold. A proper touring bike with panniers, tyres the width of a runway and gadgets that turn on its lights automatically. Oh, and mudguards. It is thanks to his planning and organisational skills that we were there at all. He even had a list, an itinerary, and downloaded maps of the route. Navigation was aided by a Garmin GPS system which beeped at regular intervals to tell us that a) a turn was 150 yards way and b) the turn was just ahead as we approached it. There should be no way we could get lost. I had every faith in the pragmatic and systematic approach of our Northern guide. He had the whiff of precision engineering about him, an ‘everything in its place’ kind of thing. He could spot a mislaid joist at a hundred paces. He looked the part. It was that of a long distance cyclist. Tall, and a lean frame frame befitting someone who is planning a very long trip to cycle every stage of the Tour de France won by a Brit.
Given that he often had his arm up a cow’s arse, which I believe calls for judgments of distance around clearances of inches rather than thousands of a millimetre, I found his attention to detail refreshing. I should also say that his inserting of limbs into dark places was for business reasons and not for leisure. His day job had been the welfare of animals, which includes killing them.
That’s what vets do.
Mr, actually Doctor, Tatham is garrulous to the the point of distraction. Think of the exuberance of Toad of Toad Hall. His clothes are often arranged in loose formation, the main colour scheme being that of a rainbow crashing into a paint factory with little regard for aesthetic juxtaposition. His bike was one of Mr Harris’ contraptions with the emphasis on “Will Dr Tatham survive without wrecking it?”. A permanent grin would accompany the permanent camera and cries of absolute joy rattling o’er the treetops. Plying his trade as a General Practitioner in Canada has prepared him well for East Anglia. There has not been an orifice, lump, secretion, protuberance or bleed that has phased him in the past. The inbreds of the Fens will not therefore shock. There are bits of him that require attention (and drugs) and a decent service, but the 50 miles should not present too much of a challenge. As long as we don’t pass a pretty young thing, then our progress should be smooth. For Dr Tatham, precision and planning are two words in the dictionary rather than concepts to be applied in everyday life…and so it is a good thing indeed that Mr Harris takes charge.
The bikes had been fettled, the loins girded but the butt cream forgone. Ahead was 50 circular miles of Fenland adventure. The sky was blue, the odd cloud skittering high above, the wind but a breeze although forecast to be stronger. Taking a north eastern route out of town, we found ourselves quickly into the countryside on our way through to the Sandringham Estate. We passed by one of the Royal Gates, a huge black wrought iron affair with spikes and what I thought was a Royal Crest. It’s message was clear. We might have paid for this Estate, with the blood of the proletarian martyrs while the robber barons, with a Royal nod, dispossessed the common folk from the common land as the enclosures tightened around their necks, but there is no way a hairy handed son of toil was going to set foot upon monarchical property. Even on a bicycle. In the background, as we stood for a picture by the gates, we could hear birdsong in the surrounding woods. I thought I could hear the sound of the sharpening of guillotines among the chirruping of sparrows.
As we leave Sandringham, it is soon time for tea and cake. However, we are in the countryside of Norfolk. There are fields, and trees, and lanes, and pigs, horses and crows. We spot Red kites and the odd rabbit. The wind sweeps across the open hedge free fields kicking up dust and leaves. There are no signs saying ‘Tea Shop this way’. I hear a banjo. The only other sound is the swish of rubber tyre on lane and the occasional fart.
We quickly agree that it is impossible to fart while peddling or remaining in the saddle. So, if you see the cyclist in front of you stand up on his peddles and ceasing turning the crank you may suspect with a high degree of accuracy what is about to occur. So to add the to the gently shushing of breeze and tyre we hear the odd ‘tharp’. I blame the Guinness.
A windmill is spotted in the distance.
As we cycle we come across the little brown tourist sign which of course says ‘Windmill’. This is overkill because we can see the bloody thing from 1000 meters away. Now, we could plough onwards looking for a tea shop for cakes and pie but this little gem has to be seen up close. We turn left off course and down to the mill. We stop at a gate to admire it and take a picture. Pretty as it is, the agenda has quickly focused on tea, but there is no sign of a tea shop. We might have to clench buttocks and grit our teeth.
However, the inquisitive Mr Harris, cycles a few yards down the lane to the other side of the mill. Unbridled joy erupts as he spots a tea shop hidden from our view. There is still no sign pointing to it, but hey ho we have found Nirvana.
One of the absolute joys of cycling is the stop for tea and cake. This tea shop has cake, pasties and pork pies. We push open the door into the relative darkness inside, but the sun comes out and its rays floods the tea room with warmth. It is good to be alive. As I am about to order I spot the pork pies, hand made with crinkly crimping around the edges. They are not uniform in shape indicating the hand crafted nature of each individual pie. They are lovingly made by jolly buxom housewives in the back kitchen who sing while they work, their nimble fingers caressing the pastry after the high quality pork is placed inside. Only the finest pigs, hand fed on acorns while otherwise roaming free foraging in the forests, provide the meat. The shortcrust pastry is light and crumbly upon the bite, the jelly inside explodes onto the tongue. They would be perfect with an ale. ‘Cornish’ pasties are also on offer, and I inwardly bridle when this is said. But the mistake was very quickly rectified and the ‘cornish’ was retracted. Just as well, they were crimped over the middle and the inside contained peas and carrot. How do I know? We bought three for the end of the day’s ride. In terms of size they were just above a cocktail pasty and just below a small. After 50 miles, however, they were fantastic.
Suitably victualled we set off down the Norfolk country lanes. The sun continued to shine, with little evidence of the predicted shower. The riding at this point is fairly effortless, at a pace of about 10-11 miles an hour. This is slow enough to take in the sights and sounds and provided ample time for photo stops and banter.
The next stop would be for lunch at the ‘Dabbling Duck’ in Great Massingham. You just can’t make this up. A village green, a village pond (with ducks), the church, old cottages thatched and tiled and the pub. Just the perfect village scene. I spotted its idiot hiding behind the red pillar box doing something uncalled for with a bucket, some lubricant and a cat. At this point my garmin was telling me I had used 1400 calories. Thats 7 pints and two pies worth, therefore a lunch of a ham and cheese sandwich to be washed down with a pint of ‘Nelson’s Revenge’, served in a dimpled beer jug with handle, was hardly going to make a dent. The sandwich was served with a side salad, red cabbage and these new fangled hipster type crisps which I think are some old vegetables sliced up and passed off as a ‘crisp’. I think to qualify as a ‘crisp’ the sliced potato (not parsnip, beetroot or carrot) has to be come in a bag preferably with a little blue bag of salt.
We learned from the barman that the mansion we had previously passed was Houghton Hall, the summer holiday home of Lord and Lady Cholmondeley (‘Chumly’) whose main residence is Cholmondeley castle. These country houses were no doubt built with the blood, sweat and tears of the peasants from whom the Chumleys had stolen their land. As you gaze upon these monuments to exploitation and slavery, in the historical winds you can hear the cries of ill fed babies straining to get what little milk there was from their mother’s breasts; mothers who had put in a 20 hour day and who had only a carrot to suck on for dinner and a cardboard box to sleep in. Never mind, as long as Lady Chumley has a second home for her holiday, it was all worth it. The village green at Great Massingham was host to various hangings of miscreants who lost their lives for no worse crime than muttering rebellious thoughts about the aristocracy, tickling a pig or licking bread crumbs from the kitchen floor of Houghton Hall. During the first world war, Lord C rounded up the loudest critics, enlisted them as the Massingham Pals and sent them straight to the front line at the Somme. Some 56 local lads of Norfolk left. None came back. Well, one did, but upon return, his mind so traumatised by whizz bangs, he developed a taste for goat ‘worrying’ and was hanged without ceremony at Norwich assizes as a lesson to the revolutionary classes.
And that is why we still have Tory governments today.
The afternoon session, post lunch, saw us plunge deeper into Norfolk. I’m all for deep plunging…it has been said that I am one of best at it given a fair wind, some notice and several ales. My plunging exploits however are surpassed by one of my colleagues who shall remain nameless. We followed a straight road into a village called ‘Castle Acre’. We soon discovered why.
It has a Castle, that is probably an acre in size. Don’t think of Windsor, Cardiff or Edinburgh. These are still pretty much intact. This one however dates from the 11th century is nowt but a ruin. However, it is pretty impressive, sitting upon the earthworks, dried up moats and rampart. parking the bikes we look up at the walls and are taunted by some French soldiers. History oozes from every stone. Close your eyes and you can hear serfs cleaning the floors, feeding the pigs and dying early from malnutrition and syphilis. Keep them closed and you can hear the Lord exercising his ‘droit de signeuer’ with the latest available, but unwilling, virgin brides. There is a some medieval graffiti on one wall. Simply says ‘Help, we are ruled by a madman’ but in Latin: ‘Aidorum, Nos est Regularum ab Lunitacus Illigitimus’ It was conditions like this that provided the inspiration for Marx’s ‘Communist Manifesto’. Such Castles probably prevented the peasants uprising by working them to death, keeping them ignorant and feeding them fetid turnips.
And that is why there are turnips/swedes are in Cornish pasties. They are there to remind you of your place in the social hierarchy. The present queen keeps pictures of Castles and Turnips in her favourite privy in Windsor as an historical comfort should Jeremy Corbyn become Prime Minister.
Castle Acre also has a ruined Priory, courtesy of ‘our ‘enry’ no doubt. The monks are long gone but their recipes for beer and mead live on, the results of which can be seen on any Glasgow street at night. Many a young lady has lost her virginity, and many a fight in backstreet pubs across the land, can give thanks to the dedication of the Christian soldiers of the past who never stinted in going onward in their quest for brewing a drink to lose your mind to. The three of us, however, turn a blind eye to the hideous past of Castle Acre as we cycle past its only pub ‘The Ostrich’. This is an unusual name for a pub in this part of the world as to my knowledge there are few flightless birds indigenous to this region. I would have thought a better name for village pub out in the wilds of the Fens would be something like ‘The Sheep and Shagger’. Its pub sign would have to be carefully designed so as not to offend the local vicar with its depictions of an indifferent ewe being held by a cross eyed and furrowed browed bovine enthusiast son of the soil.
The final stretch proved delightful if uneventful.
The most exciting part was stopping for 5 minutes and watching potatoes being picked in a field.
The industrial scale of the machinery has to be seen to be believed. In days of yore no doubt a thousand farm labourers would stoop and pick by hand each lovely spud and place it carefully in a wicker basket. They would carefully brush off the dirt and look for blemishes as they went. They would be paid in cider and wenches at the end of the day in the village pub, where they would pass many a happy hour growling and muttering in what passes for the local dialect. The Squire would pop in to the “Thirsty Ferret” at the end of the potato picking season and raise a glass of port to the study yeomen who make him rich by his taking the surplus value from their labour. Oh how they laughed and japed in their bucolic poverty not knowing that elsewhere townsfolk could enjoy hot tea, a log fire and sanity. Here however, ‘rural idiocy’ abounded due to the hard work and the diet of raw potato and worms, their lives made bearable by the beer.
Today, tractors the size of Panzer tanks pull alongside massive machines that made all of these workers unemployed and stupid. Now all that left is for erstwhile labourers to make the trek to Norwich to cheer on a football team whose enthusiasm is in inverse proportion to their skill.
The circular ride over, we scoff the three ‘pasties’ before setting off to Norwich for the night.