Squelchy Ride and Lessons Learned

So it’s not been a great summer of riding for me, mostly due to a back problem which has necessitated lots of physio and exercises to try and get me moving pain free.  I seem to be slowly on the way to recovery and have been gradually easing back into riding to work but today saw the first venture off road to see how it would stand up.  Of course I knew that conditions might be a tad tricky under foot with the amount of rain we’ve been having but it would have been nice if the alarm had woken me to reveal a crisp bright autumn day instead a drizzly pea souper.  However we set off driving in the dark and began pedaling into Nidderdale at first light – I say light but as you can see from the photo above there was not much light knocking about, dark, dank and Wuthering Heights like.

Now one of the issues for me about bikes is the need to have some rudimentary mechanical skills to keep them in good working order and clean and this is especially true for me as I use one bike for both commuting and mountain biking and I just swap the tyres out depending on what I’m riding.  The problem is that the bike gets some hammer and my cleaning and mechanical skills leave something to be desired so despite me doing some preparation the day before, as evidenced in the photo below, the front mech has not worked for about a year and I’m starting to develop chain slip.

The result of this lack of skill (and my inherent laziness of course) was that as soon as we hit the first incline that required the granny ring it became unrideable due to the chain slip which was much worse that I thought.  So there is a big lesson for me here that I need to take more care of my bike, I need to learn more skills and really understand how all the parts work so that I can ensure that the bike is ready to roll every ride, no annoying little squeaks or rattles so that even if the Snail is riding the bike will not let me down.  I can of course also save up some pennies and get some more bikes.

Once I was off the steep stuff I encountered some more tough conditions that created more chain slip and that was MUD !  Now if you ride in Yorkshire you are going to encounter mud but I can’t recall hitting anything quite as deep and squelchy as the stuff we attempted to negotiate today, sometimes successfully and others not although I did not lose my shoe in the gloop unlike my riding buddy.

Despite all the mud we did also find some lovely single track through the woods as well.  The rain and general dampness had the muffling effect similar to snow, there was nothing you could hear apart from your breath, the squelch of the tyres and of course various squeaks and rattles from my bike !

One thing that is great about early morning riding in poor weather is that you will generally have the whole place to yourself and we didn’t see any bikes and I think were only passed by one car on the roads linking the various tracks.  This peacefulness makes the rain forgettable for me but also turns the landscape into something that is quite eerie but which I find very beautiful in it’s dankness.

As well as the mechanical lessons that need to be learnt the other thing that you learn in riding in these conditions is improved bike handling skills, I’m not sure I mastered them as I slipped and slithered my way around the hillside and I did get deposited into the heather on occasion but I’m sure that I improved a bit out there today.

The final run back to the car had us grinning from ear to ear reminding ourselves that it is always good to venture out, even if you know it’s going to squelch.

Only down side to the ride was that I managed to leave my gloves on the roof of the car so a new pair of faithfuls are required !


The Metro

Crime and punishment in The Metro

Public transport, it’s for the people, the clue’s right there in the first word, and yet there seems to be a few people who forget this (I’m pointing a large finger at TFL, whose aim appears to be to hold the people of London to ransom).

Out here in Russia, things are a little different. The Metro system in Moscow was installed during an era when everything was for the people and the people were for the people. Communism may have long since fallen, but this is a beast that is still for the public at large.

There are 186 stations, which makes the map look something akin to an octopus robot that’s been cross bred with the Hydra, but there aren’t any zones. There’s one flat rate for a single fare of 28 Rubles (that’s 56p) and you can get a discount if you load up in bigger numbers.

It might not be as clean and slick as its counterpart in say Beijing, but while the Chinese concentrate on keeping everything plain and bland, it feels like The Soviets were attempting to copy the BBC’s mission statement of; educate, entertain and inform. This isn’t simply a system to send you from A to B, the grandeur and propaganda is there for all to marvel as they pass through the gargantuan halls.
There’s mosaics and statues at every corner, chandeliers hanging from the church high ceilings and at the stop Dostoyevskaya, there are even scenes depicted from his novels in monochrome for you to admire.

The lines don’t seem to close either. I haven’t found myself on a weekend having to re-plan my route twelve times because there’s maintenance going on, that’s all done in the brief four hours it’s shut for during the night. This really is public transport as it should be; cheap, efficient and entertaining, with added wifi if you’re journeying round the circle line.

Richard Hawley

Photo Credit: Heather Marsden

Last night saw one of Sheffield’s finest back in Yorkshire venturing up the M1 to entertain Leeds.  Normally for me I’m a sucker for a discordant guitar al la Sonic Youth say or the rousing rumbustiousness of some young punks careering around the stage looking to tear down the system but there is always room for something a bit more considered which took me to the 02 last night to see Richard Hawley for the third or fourth time.  Now I’m not a believer in the dictum that you have to have experienced something in order to write about it but at the same time Hawley is clearly someone who has enjoyed and endured life’s rich tapestry and, like me, his middle years allow him to reflect on this from a particular perspective.  The result is some of the warmest, tender songs you could hope to hear delivered by a voice that is honey smooth and mellow, backed by a densely rich and textured sound with not a chord out of place.  In fact all of the band are clearly extraordinarily skilled musicians that provide the perfect platform for Hawley’s storytelling to unfold.  One of the things I’ve always liked about seeing him live is that he is not, like many bands, afraid of the mike, he gets the sound mix right so that you can clearly hear him and his voice becomes another instrument in the band and he also is comfortable to chat in his expletive laden raconteur way giving snippets into his home life, what the songs are about, witty anecdotes, politics and berating the talkers.  There is a personal way in which he does this that makes you feel it’s you and him in a pub having a chat.

Although there were some of the old favs last night much of the gig was showcasing his latest album Standing At The Sky’s Edge and it translated beautifully onto the stage although I did notice that he appeared to have nicked the British Sea Power idea of tree stage decoration (BSP fans will know what I mean).  The gig was a great experience and if you have not seen him I recommend you go along if he is playing in your town.  For me the overall feeling that he creates in me is one similar to this – It’s been a cold crisp but sunny autumn day, you are now getting warm in your favourite pub and you’ve had a couple of beers, all your best mates are around you and in a good mood, there is that special vibe happening where you meander through tales of your intertwining lives, loves won and lost and the warm glow that only comes in these moments and that’s not a bad way for a gig to make you feel.

Heritage Open Days

Whoever came up with the idea for the Heritage Open Days needs a pat on the back. For four days every September we’re given the chance to learn more about our local history and heritage than we might otherwise be able to. Historic buildings and sites are opened up in a way that they aren’t during the rest of the year. This might mean that buildings that are in private hands are opened to the public, behind the scenes tours are laid on, entry fees are waived, or volunteers are on hand to answer questions or give tours. Every year I intend to make good use of the opportunities and I usually fail, so I was especially determined this time. I had a whole weekend of activities planned – I didn’t manage all of it, but I did good.



My first goal was to have a snoop inside the Tetley headquarters building. For those that don’t know, there’s been a brewery on the site since 1791. Joshua Tetley bought it in 1822 and the present building was built in 1931. The brewery was closed in 2011 and most of the site has now been demolished. I had a couple of reasons for waiting to go. Firstly, it was a nice opportunity to see inside a historic building that hadn’t been open to the public. Secondly, what does an art deco office look like and how many of the original features have survived? And thirdly, it would be interesting to see the “before” picture before it embarks on a new life next year.

As to the first point, there’s something quite exciting about going where you couldn’t go before, like being let into a secretive world. And who doesn’t like to be a bit nosy?! Unfortunately there weren’t any old papers lying around, but the plaques on the doors denoting who would have worked there fed the imagination. The answer to the second point was – quite a lot. From the original lift to the fireplaces and little hatch between the manager’s office and the one next door, there was no sense that modernity had come along and spoilt everything. For instance, there were new lights, but they were subtle and in keeping with the rest of the building. Not to mention the wonderful life still being there. The next phase of the site’s life will be as an art exhibition space, under the auspices of PSL (Project Space Leeds), a local organisation set up to create professional exhibition opportunities for young and emerging artists based in Leeds and the north of England. It’s going to be fascinating to see how such a creative group makes use of the site. It opens in spring 2013, so we don’t have long to wait to find out.



My second visit was to the Roundhouse, a building that thousands of people drive past every day, probably without giving it much thought. But actually it’s rather significant. It’s alongside Wellington Road as you approach Armley Gyratory from the city centre, and was once part of the sprawling railway network around Leeds. And this is where my reason for visiting comes in, because from the end of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th century, several of my family were railwaymen, and I want to know more about what it was like. The building predates them, but nevertheless gives an insight into the world they knew.




It is one of the few, if not only, surviving examples of a complete roundhouse of the 1840s, complete with original 50’ timbers in the ceiling. It was used to ‘stable’ (a term I find quite cute for some reason) the locomotives – in the centre was a turntable on to which you’d drive and then be turned in the direction of the appropriate berth for the night. I’m sure anyone who’s read or seen Thomas the Tank Engine can picture the scene. Despite the building of a half roundhouse next door (now Majestic) and another roundhouse nearby (demolished in the 1960s), their full use was short lived as locomotives being bigger and the sheds were no longer practical. A larger, more flexible, facility was built on the other side of the city centre and the roundhouse began to have other uses.

Ordinarily you would never get to see inside, but because of the interest of the occupants, Leeds Commercial Ltd, it was opened up on a gloriously sunny Sunday afternoon (hard to picture that over the last few days!). Some real care and attention had gone into it, with vans being parked up inside to act as temporary display boards for all manner of old photographs, site plans and maps, which I could quite happily look at for hours. I’m glad it survived, a part of the early history of the British railways and a remnant of the vast railway infrastructure of Leeds, much of which has long gone. It’s also helped me to imagine a small part of my great grandfather’s working life – he was a driver and would have put his engine to bed in something similar every day. He died long before I was born so I’ve never been able to ask him what it was like to be a train driver, but at least I now have a prop for my imagination to work with.

But I’m also glad that there are people out there who are so interested in the history of their buildings that they’re willing to give up their time to share it with the rest of us. So to everyone who’s involved in the Heritage Open Days, thank you.

Heath Robinson

I was fortunate growing up in that both parents enjoyed reading and so there were a plentiful supply of books around, not that I can remember ever reading many of theirs but a weekly trip to the library instilled in me early the spell binding treasures to be found among the pages.  There was a bookcase in our front room crammed full of books but there was one that I stumbled across and kept going back to over and over again which was a book of Heath Robinson cartoons.  I loved this book, no words whatsoever just page after page of mystifyingly odd drawings that could make my dad chuckle out loud to himself.  At first I think I was just captured by the bizarreness of it and can remember following every opening, tunnel, ladder or rope to see where it led but then as I grew I began to see the humour and brilliance of the cartoons.

For me I seem to remember two distinct topics which were the inventions and the war cartoons (which would of course usually feature inventions).  The inventions generally seemed to be the most absurd and complicated machine you could devise to solve a simple problem like the Easter egg gathering machine above.  While the war cartoons always struck me as poking fun at the absurdity of war as opposed to pure propaganda and indeed had much of the ‘Blackadder’ about them.

Whilst he did often draw cartoons with a single person in them the majority contained a serious cast of protagonists such as on the building of the bridge below.  When you look at his drawings that are in many respects highly technical I love that fact that, for me anyway, I’m drawn into the illusion of thinking either how does it work or can it work?  There will of course be a lot of people who have never seen his work but will use his name as we can all I’m sure think of things that are a jumble of wires or a bit of a bodge job done to find a solution and someone will say “that’s a bit Heath Robinson”, and it’s great to see the madcap spirit live on in Nick Park and his Wallace and Gromit films which are packed with Heath Robinsonesque inventions.  For me though as well as making me smile for what they are whenever I see one or someone mentions something that’s a bit Heath Robinson I’m transported back to my old front room, the book case, a tattered book of cartoons and my dad chuckling.

Things fall apart

This month’s book in the boys book club was an interesting choice. It has first surfaced as a nomination over two years ago and as often happens it re-surfaced again to get its moment in the sun. As usual, we were drawn to it by the obscure author (at least for us) and the intriguing premise.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe is actually the second African author we’ve read, so we’re not 100% strangers to this strand of literature although I suspect we’ve not even scratched the scratch on the surface.

I thought it would be interesting for readers of the blog to see an actual review from the night.

If one of us is unable to make the meeting for some reason, we ask for a written review to be submitted. And to be honest a written review can be just as powerful and insightful as a verbal review. Michael (or Monty as he is otherwise known) couldn’t make the meeting on Friday so he submitted a written review.

Here it is, in all its full glory…

Things Fall Apart

I know we have said this a lot recently but again this is a book which I believe when it comes to the reviews, could produce a mouth-watering result. (And I hope it did).

 I want to say: stark, difficult, strange, stripped back, brutal and yet at times peaceful, soothing and amazing. All of those things in just 150 pages is good going in my opinion!

First of all we have read African literature before. Camus of course – Algerian by birth. Nevertheless I feel we kicked on to another level with Achebe. A good thing I hope you all agree. Right from the off it just felt different. Not in any negative or even positive way – but just different. Maybe it was the names. Maybe it was the style of the author. Maybe it was my pre-conceived ideas of what I should or should not expect from an African writer. I didn’t struggle with it at first but I wasn’t gripped. When it became apparent we were not to meet in August the opportunity was there to put the book aside for a few weeks and return again later.

When I did return and like all good books I was drawn in. I began to enjoy and look forward to the little stories (or fables, myths etc) of why certain things were as they were – the snake who boiled seven pans of leaves (to be left with three), the moon being sullen because it will not rise until near dawn, the Ogbanje child who dies and comes back to be reborn and a whole host of others.

The whole regime of the village, the structure, the way things were as they were and had been that way since people could remember. The role of men, elders, women, sons, daughters, wives, Gods, brought almost a calmness, a relaxed manner at times to what I was reading. This was when I felt almost soothed by the text, because all the difficult things we have in our own society were just not there in Okonkwo’s. For the most part things were done in one way and one way only – thats it! No choices, decisions, myriad variations, minutiae or quite frankly the general bollocks we piss around with most of our lives.

The story of Ezinma being carried off by Chielo with Ekwefi following was one I particularly liked. I was drawn to the description of the dark where it was impossible to see, no moon to guide them. Chielos strength and strange behaviour, walking round the villages and the visit to the cave. The walk felt well described and I could almost visualise their long trek and at times the strange shapes that came out of the gloom for Ekwefi and sense the tricks her mind played on her as she continued following through to moonrise and the cave.

Okonkwo’s gun going off came like a thunderbolt – totally unexpected – and of course from there things do begin to fall apart. To me the title itself is clever. When the author entitles his work: “Things Fall Apart” is he saying it with a large sigh and resigned inevitability about life. A bit like saying “shit happens.” Or is he saying it as a warning…..this is why Things Fall Apart – “read on and learn!”

Ultimately I can’t figure out which side of the fence the author wants us to fall on – if indeed he wants us to fall at all. We know its wrong to kill twins and mutilate children. We know its wrong to deny people an education if that is what they have become aware of and choose to pursue. But what if no white man had ever ever ever set foot in Africa? What if we had just completely left the Continent untouched?  A discussion for another day.

I won’t waffle on and just recount what happens or go over particular sections that appealed. But at the end I was left with an ambivalence around the story, the author, Okonkwo and the arrival of the Missionaries. And I’m okay with that, because although it leads to a sense of unfulfillment, it also feels very real and believable. Thought-provoking and resonant. It packed a punch in 150 pages.

Michael’s score: 7 out of 10

If you go down to the woods today …..

So I had my first real exposure to Cyclocross today – not riding it of course just going along to have a look.  I’ll be honest it’s not something I know anything about but when I heard that a couple of Tweeps (@accidentobizaro – rider 119 below and @24Tom – below in the orange garage bike kit) were racing a few miles from where I live and where I sometimes take out the old hardtail I thought it would be a great opportunity to go and have a look.  What I discovered was a seemingly secret world of great people and fun times.  I say secret because you have to know where it’s taking place and even though I knew roughly where the racing was I still drove past the entrance several times before I spotted some CX bikes on a roof rack and followed them !  A field of cars, bikes, good coffee and bonhomie then opened up before me and I was pretty surprised by the amount of people of every age getting ready to race.  It was clearly a close knit crowd with many of the people there knowing each other and shouting out greetings while people were dotted round warming up and trying out the course.  The course itself was hard to make out for a newbie comprising of taped off sections looping their way around the field before vanishing off into the woods, but I slowly got my bearings before watching the young ones strut their stuff.  They were great to watch, everyone from tiny ones who could barely ride to others blinged out on their Ridley’s and Hopes who’d have given the snail from South Wales a clean pair of heals and make no mistake.  All seemed to be having a great time and that was what I noticed most about pretty much all the riders, no matter what the age and no matter how tough it was they all seemed to be having a good time.

Following up were the women and vets (which if I ever have a go would be what I would be riding in) and the cowbells were out to cheer on @accidentobizaro.  She has been writing a great blog on the challenges of learning to get to grips with CX riding which you can read more of here and it was great to watch a newbie to the sport having a go – and making a dam fine job of it and providing me with plenty of inspiration.  I must admit that I loved all the bikes, not having ridden a drop bar for many years they looked great fun, sturdy and throwabout and perhaps closer in some ways to my hardtail that pure skinny roadies.  Anyway I suffered greatly from bike envy and decided that I want one !

The problem with the vet category for me looking on were these guys were by and large tough, whippet thin, gnarly Yorkshire folk with years of riding behind them and I’m none of that ! but I guess you’ve got to start somewhere.  The course itself looked very interesting, much of which I thought yep I could ride that but there was a seriously tricky looking descent into the woods that I would have struggled with and a hill out of them that was incredibly steep.  I saw a handful ride up it which was no mean feat but the majority shouldered or pushed their bikes up.  The other bit that took me by surprise were the obstacles put in to make you jump off your bike to run over them or if you were seriously good, and there were some who were, you bunny hopped them !  In general I was incredibly impressed by the handling and fitness of everyone involved but more importantly that everyone appeared to be a friendly crowd (whether that is the reality out on the course I don’t know).  I’m tempted though, I’ve never raced anything in my life but I fancy trying to get fit enough to have a go at this, I won’t be racing just trying to survive and get round but next season get the cowbells out – the snail will be on his way.