It’s late on a summer’s evening and I’m cycling homeward along one of the most beautiful country roads in England.
This morning’s London to Brighton bike ride is well behind me now and I’m rolling towards the sunset on the longest day of the year.
Eighty miles are in my legs by the time I pass the pretty Saxon village of Slinfold, with twenty more ahead to Guildford.
Beyond the church, I slowly climb a steady rise and turn right onto the main A29. One of my favourite cycling stretches, this — perfect blacktop, arrow straight, and for now at least, heading gently downhill towards the river.
This is Stane Street — the Roman road from Chichester to London. Built in the 1st Century AD, it’s more than good enough for me now. I pause to eat and think at the bridge across the Arun. Here, inside the meander of the river, the Romans built a staging post or mansio.
As evening falls beneath the deepest black of a December northern sky, a thin veil of dark blue hangs streaked with vivid orange just above the pine trees.
The homeward rush hour in Inverness is a muted, half-hearted affair, and in minutes we’re sailing past the bright lights of the bridge towards the darkness of the Black Isle.
Half an hour ahead, the lights of Cromarty barely touch the depths of nightfall. The white houses of the Royal Burgh are hiding low against the shoreline.
There’s a menace to the silence now, faintly interrupted as it is by the bleak moanful sounds of grinding metal and hammering. Across the water, just half a mile offshore, the leviathans of the deep are waiting.
Here in the Cromarty Firth, oil rigs from around the world are waiting for the calmer seas of spring, wintering inshore through maintenance and upgrade programmes to equip them for ever deeper, more challenging drilling as our quest for oil expands.
Ditchling Beacon is the high point of the London to Brighton Bike Ride each year, in lots more ways than one.
A whole year of training is finally distilled into one breathless blur of uphill climb.
And no matter how many hills I’ve toiled all winter, it never seems that success on Ditchling is guaranteed — because it’s the toughest ascent I do.
Here’s a map and a profile of the hill, and a comparison with White Down, the steepest climb in the Surrey Hills close to where I live, and the last training test I do before setting off to Brighton each year.
I approved the proclamation which Fidel Castro made in the Sierra Maestra, when he justifiably called for justice and especially yearned to rid Cuba of corruption. I will even go further:
… In the matter of the Batista regime, I am in agreement with the first Cuban revolutionaries. That is perfectly clear.
— US President John F. Kennedy: 24th October, 1963
Daybreak, 210 km from Havana.
It’s dawn. The rainforest stands still etched in grey, the air dank and humid with half-forgotten warmth.
The sky is dimly promising a future brightening through blue, already revealing white-topped clouds in the firmament above.
Behind me, the friendly valley calls. The massive limestone mogotes above Viñales rise to frame a monochrome outline of last night’s perfect Cuban sunset. I turn the other way and run towards the sunrise.
The track is damp from unseen rain fallen in the night. The air is heavy, silent, folded thick amongst the trees and scrub lurking close around the path.
The Cuban Revolution started somewhere like this, in the Sierra Maestra above Santiago. The 82 men who sailed from Mexico in December 1956 on the yacht Granma were swiftly cut down to twelve when they landed on Cuba’s swampy southeastern shores.
The survivors, among them a charismatic Argentinian doctor named Che Guevara, fled for the refuge of the mountains where they could regroup and recruit fresh rebels for their cause.
The March sun was warming the first Spring evening in London just a few hours ago, but it’s a winter’s tail that tells of Scandinavia now. Thirty centimetres of snow drape the train tracks in the station.
I fumble my way outside, and pull my coat around me. A mile of dark, uncertain streets leads past the midnight girls and drug dealers (who thought this city knew such things?) to my hastily-booked hotel.
No alarm call needed, as morning brings the sounds of a building site next door. The day is lightening outside my window, and pretty soon I’m running beneath a chill grey sky as deserted shopping streets lead me towards the Cathedral.
I take a short diversion to reconnoitre the address for my meeting, and then my mental map of Oslo runs out. Five circular minutes later I’m slithering across white snowy gardens around the Akershus Fortress, and then on to reach the waterfront.
The Oslofjord lies black and still before me, the quaysides completely empty. Five minutes of quiet is the time I need to clear my mind and think.
My car was ten years old last week. As chance would have it, 100,000 miles came up on the same day. That’s the most miles of any car I’ve owned.
By European standards, it’s a middle of the road kind of vehicle. A 2000 Ford Focus with a 1.8 litre petrol engine, which has delivered 39.8 mpg over the life of the car.
The UK government launched a scrappage scheme last April, and extended it in September. My car qualifies. If I scrap the car, the government and dealer will each give me £1,000 off the full list price of any new vehicle I buy.
At first sight that’s good, but a new family car still costs £15,000. The cynic in me also noted that before the scrappage scheme began, dealers were offering discounts of £2,000 to drag buyers from the street. Those offers aren’t available within the scrappage scheme.
The result is that the taxpayer is writing a cheque for £2,000 to manufacturers for every new car sold, while the real savings to buyers are minimal. I’d be better off buying a one-year old model and saving £5,000 off the list price that way.
In addition to supporting the car industry, the scrappage scheme aims to offer environmental benefits by taking older, thirsty cars off the road and replacing them with modern, more fuel-efficient models. But does it?
My next car will be more fuel-efficient and likely smaller. I’ve seen a new Ford Fiesta Econetic claiming 76 mpg, and the equivalent Focus will do 66 mpg. Even a basic 2009 1.6 Ford Focus diesel gives 60 mpg. So is there a clear environmental case for scrapping my 10-year old car and buying a newer model?
Monolithos was four fisherman huts along the water,
a miniature villa closed for years, and our farmhouse
a hundred feet behind. Hot fields of barley, grapes,
and tomatoes stretching away three flat miles
to where the rest of the island used to be.
— Not Part of Literature: from Monolithos, by Jack Gilbert (1982)
A cold January in London is always the perfect time to head inside. Sunday finds us at the British Museum, gazing enthralled at a small statue which transports us to a different world entirely.
Inside the case, an acrobat is jumping over the horns of a charging bull — a feat of agility captured in Bronze Age craftsmanship more than three and a half thousand years ago.
The Minoans who made the statue lived around the eastern Mediterranean for well over a thousand years.
Settling from 2600 BC around Knossos, near modern Heraklion on the Greek island of Crete, they built rich palaces which were destroyed and rebuilt several times after 1700 BC, before their sites were taken over by the Myceneans around 1420 BC.
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It’s early morning and the sun is already hot across the blackness of the beach. To the south, the road snakes its way up the limestone cliff to Ancient Thera. It’s one of the most beautiful places on Earth, but the climb of Mesa Vouno will kill me long before I get there.
I head north along the shore, with the Aegean Sea on my right, and work my way slowly out of Kamari. The strip is quiet at this time of day, with just a few old folks up in search of breakfast. The rest of the resort is sleeping off last night.
The deserted boutique hotels and bars fall swiftly behind me, and soon I reach the end of town and the start of Greece.