Saturday, 29 January 2011

Learning to ride - for the second time

Age may bring experience and more competence in many areas of life, but one thing it does not help with is physical activity and co-ordination - at least not in my case. I was reminded of this quite forcibly when I tried on some ice skates at Hampton Court a couple of years back. Each year pre-Christmas, London opens up some of its historic sites as ice-skating venues and I went down with the family to take a turn. We all hired skates and once on the ice it was at that moment I discovered I didn't want to be there. I slipped and stumbled my way around the circuit wishing every moment I could be finished. The confidence and risk-taking which had been there when I was younger had now evaporated. Lesson learned.

Christmas skaters at Hampton Court, London.

My dilemma was therefore, "Would I have the confidence to get back on a motorbike again?" I certainly didn't want to buy a bike and then make a fool of myself by not being able to handle it. So I thought it would be sensible to book in for a refresher course at my local CBT centre. Hopefully the folk there would get me up to speed again.

The day with the Bikewise instructor proved invaluable. I began on an open tarmac area on a Chinese 125cc, practising gear changes, clutch control and use of the brakes. I was truly awful at first but bit by bit I found the old skills returning. What came a s a surprise to me was the clutch play. On older bikes, one used the clutch as little as possible for fear of burning it out; however, on modern bikes (with wet plates) the clutch is slipped frequently as a means of controlling the bike.
Kawasaki ER5

There followed three sessions on a Kawasaki ER5 (500cc): one on the tarmac area to get the feel of the clutch and the extra weight of the bigger bike and then two out on the road with the instructor. Both road trips were something of a strain for me - trying to negotiate the traffic and handle the bike was exhausting. There were two highlights whilst out on the road, however. The first was when we finally broke free from residential roads and got to ride through parkland for five minutes without having to stop at a junction. This was magic and reminded why it was that I wanted to travel by bike once again. The second high point was the cafe we stopped for lunch. From the outside it looked like your usual high street caff but this was misleading. Well appointed inside with a cheerful decor, the staff served up simple but really well cooked grub. An eating spot to remember!

Rumblin Tums

Rumblin' Tums, Wallingford

Saturday, 22 January 2011

What route to take?

Via Francigena - London to Rome.

For the tour, I considered walking to Rome. Hilaire Belloc did the journey - albeit from central France - and plenty of others have walked from England along the Via Francigena. However, I reckoned such a walk would take me over six weeks and this was a too long to ask my family to put up with. I could of course travel by car (boring), camper van (great fun, but we didn't own one) or train (feasible - but this limited me to towns).

According to Google Maps from London to Cagliari is about 2,100 miles.

One option - a more exciting one - was to tour by motorbike. Although I have my license I haven't ridden for nearly 30 years! But the more I thought about it, the more appealing the idea became. I could ride the whole length of Italy and finish up in Sardinia where Marilena would be visiting her parents. Cool - riding across Europe with the wind in my face and the sun on my back. What fun! But how to get back on a bike again? And would I be able to handle one, now that I was so much older?

Friday, 7 January 2011

The idea of the 'grand tour'

This Christmas, after 40 years working in education, I retired and took the pension. It all came about at fairly short notice, so I haven't yet got used to the idea. I say 'retirement' - but it's really only partial retirement since I'm staying on at the university on a half-time workload. Nonetheless, I feel it has to be marked in a special way - and for me that's a grand tour of Italy.

The idea for this came from a book I read which left a lasting impression. It was Hilaire Belloc's Path to Rome written in 1902. In the book, he recounts how, on becoming a Catholic, he made a vow to walk on pilgrimage to Rome. I thought this was a splendid idea and I loved his 'freestyle' approach to the walk - his lack of preparedness and willingness to 'ad lib' his way across Europe. Indeed, this inspired me to undertake a much shorter pilgrimage myself some four years ago.

The wife, my three boys and me.

My family lives in Surrey - a few miles from the the North Downs long distance footpath. This was once the Pilgrim's Way - a medieval route taken by pilgrims from Winchester cathedral to that of Canterbury. My own walking pilgrimage (in 2006) took me from my home in Ewell to Winchester along the North Downs Way and from thence to Portsmouth via the Pilgrim's Trail. Here I caught the ferry to Cherbourg in France and, backpacking for 10 days, I made my way along (yet another) old pilgrim route to Mont St Michel.

The pilgrimage was a wonderful experience and I retain very happy memories of the walk. I loved the rhythm of walking all day long with a bottle of red wine stored in my haversack and a baguette peeping out the top, of stopping off in small villages to pray in ancient churches, of reading long lists of the dead on lovingly cared-for war memorials (immensely sad), of the sights and sounds of the Normandy coastline, and of engaging conversations with helpful locals. And finally - the piece de résistance - of walking with others across the vast expanse of sands of Mont St Michel bay to the great abbey itself.