About Rob Skinner

I'm Rob Skinner. My family know me as Robert. My wife calls me Ert. (The part of 'Robert' that I don't always use...) I've been working in PR since 1987, mostly in financial services. In my spare time, I enjoy cycling reading, editing videos on my computer and practising my Welsh (dwi'n dod yn wreiddiol o Gaerdydd). And blogging. Do please post a comment! NOTE: this is my personal blog. It does not represent the views of the organisations I work for.

The making of a railway: watching the birth of HS2

Cutting through the Chilterns: Looking towards High Wycombe from Loudwater tunnel: SWA Newton

At the end of the 19th century, a photographer called SWA Newton documented a unique event: the creation of a new mainline railway from Sheffield to London. The Great Central Railway tore through the medieval heart of Leicester and Nottingham, and as a student in 1980s Leicester I was fascinated to find Newton’s photos of familiar sights being built just over 80 years earlier. Sadly, almost all that magnificent line was closed in the 1960s.

The Great Central was the creation of Sir Edward Watkin, who dreamed of a high speed railway linking the north of England with France through a channel tunnel. Ironically, the politicians who pushed HS2 scrapped a link between HS2 and HS1 – the channel tunnel rail link – to save money. How desperately short sighted.

I thought of SWA Newton and the birth of the Great Central in 2010 when I learned that the new High Speed 2 (HS2) railway would pass through our village. As you’d expect, there are few supporters of the line here. That’s partly because of the disruption that the construction will cause (though for me that’s been minimal so far) but also because people in Buckinghamshire won’t get any benefit from the line. It will still be quicker for us to get to Birmingham via the Chiltern line than going to London to get a train on HS2.

The line will pass through our village in a 10 mile long tunnel. That will spare the Misbourne valley although part of me thinks it’s a shame that travellers won’t be able to enjoy the beauty of the southern Chilterns. Railways blend in to the landscape unlike airports or 12-lane motorways.

I’ll never be a 21st century SWA Newton, but I do want to witness and record the work being carried out on HS2 around our village. So over the past couple of weekends, I’ve been to see the two main sites: ventilation shafts for the Chiltern tunnel.

It’s official….
On Bottom House Farm Lane, between Chalfont St Giles and Amersham

To get to the Chalfont St Giles site, I cycled down a lane for the first time, even though it’s barely a mile from our front door. I wouldn’t like to drive down Bottom House Farm Lane in a big car (it’s very narrow and badly potholed) but it was wonderful on a mountain bike. In the photo above, you can see spoil from the works. I was captivated by the forgotten valley, with its handsome farm buildings and classic Chiltern rounded hills and woodland – and with now ubiquitous red kites circling overhead.

The site on a map
The route of HS2 (in tunnel), Misbourne valley
Ready for action, Bottom House Farm Lane

HS2 has published a lot of information about the project and its impacts on its website. See HS2 in Bucks and Oxon. Ironically, some of the places mentioned such as Calvert, Twyford, Finmere and Brackley were on the route of the Great Central Railway. I blogged about this irony in 2012 here.

The access road, Bottom House Farm Lane

The contractors are building an access road alongside Bottom House Farm lane to take the construction lorries to the site of the shaft. You can see that it’s like a dual carriageway alongside the narrow country lane, although it will be restored to nature after work is finished.

Bottom House Farm Lane sights

I had no idea that this tiny lane and valley were so picturesque. This is a few hundred metres from the main London to Amersham road.

The view from the London road
Warning: railway works ahead
HS2 travellers won’t see this: the route passes under Chalfont St Giles village centre here

As I said earlier, the HS2 route passes under the heart of our village, Chalfont St Giles. This is the Misbourne in the centre of the village; the tunnel passes under here.

The access road to the Chalfont St Peter tunnel site

This is the other major site near our village. The HS2 contractors have built an access road for construction traffic to the the Chalfont St Peter tunnel shaft.

Closer to London, HS2 is forcing the closure of Hillingdon Outdoor Activity Centre (HOAC). Our son Owen has just enjoyed a wonderful summer water sports course at HOAC, and previously camped at HOAC with Chalfont St Giles Scouts. Owen and Karen were distressed to see the destruction that HS2 is causing at HOAC. We hope HOAC will move to a new site, as seems to be the case. Meanwhile, this is what the HS2 viaduct in the area will look like.

Back to where I began. The remaining parts of the Great Central (and the Great Central and Great Western Joint line through Beaconsfield and High Wycombe) blend beautifully into the countryside. Admittedly, electric lines with their overhead wires aren’t quite so unobtrusive. But I recall my view of the West Coast Mainline in the fells of northern England last year, contrasting with the eyesore of the parallel M6. True, it was better looking in the days of steam, but I knew which I preferred.

The northern fells. Spot the West Coast mainline…

I’ll end as I began, with a couple of wonderful SWA Newton images from the birth of the older high speed rail line, the Great Central and associated joint line with the Great Western. Those construction workers – navvies as they were called in the past, recalling the men who built the canals – were photographed at Wilton Park, Beaconsfield.

I respect the protests of those who object to HS2. And the claims that this is Britain’s new railway are strained – it will do nothing for Wales. But I think it’s time that the country that invented railways moved beyond the Georgian and Victorian network that shaped and the constrained the nation. It’s almost 60 years since Japan introduced the Shinkansen bullet train, and 40 years since France began TGV services. Great Britain is catching up.

Cliveden’s wartime story

Cliveden, Buckinghamshire

Cliveden is one of my favourite local places. I missed my regular bike rides here for tea and cake during lockdown. It felt strange cycling past those closed gates. Happily, the National Trust reopened Cliveden although you need to book tickets online in advance. (The house itself is a luxury hotel.)

We visited today with my niece Siân, and spent several hours exploring the estate. Cliveden is famous as the main stage of the Profumo scandal – as I blogged in The Shadow of Profumo in 2016. But the estate has better kept secrets; it was the site of a Canadian Red Cross military hospital in the Great War, which treated 24,000 people.

The Duchess of Connaught Red Cross Hospital, Cliveden

The hospital saw service during both world wars, and became part of the NHS in 1948. It closed in 1985.

The war memorial, Cliveden

There is to this day a moving and tranquil war memorial to the small number of men and one female nurse who died at the hospital. Many of those buried here were from Canada, although there are a few from Great Britain, Ireland and Australia. I certainly didn’t expect to find a Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at Cliveden.

Cliveden today is a tranquil place with wonderful views over the Thames towards Cookham and Maidenhead. It’s well worth a visit. And your visit is unlikely to shatter your career, in contrast to John Profumo’s.

Triking to Maidenhead: summer joy

I loved my childhood go-kart. It was such fun racing down the hill near my Cardiff home in the 1970s.

I’ve had an echo of that childhood excitement today, riding my ICE Adventure trike to Maidenhead. This is one of my favourite rides, crossing the Thames at Cookham and following the river to the riverside town.

I admit I had a craving for speed today. Not overall – I’ll never be as fast on the trike as on my road bike. But I was pining for speed on the swoop downhill to Wooburn Green, and knew it would be safer on three wheels than two. So it proved: 37mph!

Over the Thames at Cookham

It’s always fun crossing the Thames at Cookham, and it was no exception today on the trike. The trike was faster than I expected on the exposed road over Widbrook Common. Two years ago, I saw a herd of cows here cooling in the water from the heatwave!

Cooling off: July 2018

I always think of my late in-laws Aline and Terry as I pass Boulters Lock. This was one of their favourite places. We celebrated their golden wedding here in 2011, and had a happy breakfast at Boulters just two months before Aline died in 2015. The famous broadcaster Richard Dimbleby lived on the island, and there’s a blue plaque on the bridge to commemorate him.

Happy days. March 2015

I pressed on to the park overlooking Maidenhead’s historic bridge. Usually I’m looking out for a bench, but that wasn’t necessary today – I’d brought my own, on the trike!

I loved the 18mph swoop round the roundabout on the Buckinghamshire side of the bridge. The ICE Adventure was geared to cope with the climb through Taplow towards Cliveden. A cyclist on a mountain bike overtook me but I caught up with him at Cliveden. I’m looking forward to my first visit to the National Trust gardens at Cliveden on Tuesday – my first since the COVID-19 lockdown.

You notice more on a trike. I’ve never noticed how striking the Beaconsfield church of St Michael and All Saints (see above) is before.

I am starting to think of my next cycling challenge. Last year’s Land’s End to John O’Groats ride was unforgettable. I’m dreaming of even crazier adventures, such as London-Edinburgh-London and London-Wales-London. A trike would be so much more comfortable, but would it be too slow? Decisions, decisions…. 

My coronavirus first: driving to another country

On Saturday, I clocked up a series of firsts. My first drive over 10 miles since March. My first motorway journey and trip to another country – Wales – since lockdown.

I was on my way to see my father, Bob Skinner, for the first time since his care home closed to visitors in March. (I have blogged about that unforgettable visit here.)

I loved the drive – I treasured the time listening to music and Jack Thurston’s Bike Show podcasts. All things I used to enjoy on my daily commute. Working from home has been enjoyable but I have missed these audio moments.

Crossing the Severn Bridge into Wales, the motorway signs proclaimed: WELSH COVID RULES APPLY. It was a graphic reminder that Wales has, sensibly, taken a more careful approach to relaxing lockdown rules. The only reason I was able to make the journey to Cardiff was the scrapping of the Welsh ban on travelling more than five miles, allowing Dad’s Sunrise of Cardiff care home to allow visiting. It was nice seeing the familiar Welsh road signs: gwasanaethau (services), Caerdydd (Cardiff) and canol y ddinas (city centre).

I was very happy to drive the 300 mile round trip to see Dad for an hour (the maximum visit) but thought it would be nice to see something of my hometown after saying goodbye to Bob. So I hopped on my Brompton folding bike, and headed along Cyncoed Road and down Pen-y-lan hill towards the centre of town – canol y ddinas…

The roads were quiet, and I made up my route as I went along, threading through the streets of Cathays and emerging by the National Museum in Cathays Park. Cardiff has closed the roads around the castle to cars, and it was a pleasure to arrive at the imposing gates of the castle.

Entry to the grounds is currently free, so I wheeled my bike in, and enjoyed a few tranquil moments, reflecting on my visit to Dad.

I made my way back to Cyncoed via childhood spots such as Roath Park Lake, and past my childhood home in Winnipeg Drive, Lakeside. My Brompton is the electric version, so it made the climb back towards Cyncoed Road very easy.

I’m looking forward to a longer Welsh bike ride when we’re in Tenby in August.

Roath Park Lake and the Captain Scott memorial

I popped the Brompton back in the car, and enjoyed another easy drive (no queueing past the Brynglas tunnels at Newport). A memorable and enjoyable day.

ITV’s Good Morning Britain features my reunion with Dad

None of us will ever forget living through the coronavirus pandemic. But for me the sweetest memory will be visiting my 93 year old father, Bob Skinner, in his care home, Sunrise of Cardiff, on Saturday. This was our first meeting since February – I was due to visit on 20 March, but Sunrise closed to visitors the day before. (Dad and I had already agreed a visit was not wise given the fast escalating COVID-19 crisis.)

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We meet again!

Mine was one of countless family reunions happening around the country as lockdown restrictions eased. But, unusually, ours was featured on television. After Bob so eloquently praised care home workers on ITV’s Good Morning Britain in April, the programme asked to film him meeting his first visitors since March. Virgil from the Sunrise team in Cardiff filmed my visit for ITV. Then Bob’s granddaughter Ria visited live on Monday’s show. You can see it here.

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Dad and I reunited – as seen on TV!

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All smiles: Bob meets Ria

Ria and I both loved the experience of seeing Bob face to face (two metres apart) after months of Zoom calls, phone chats and emails. I noticed how well he looked – the Sunrise care has done him a power of good! Viewers to the show will have been struck by his energy, enthusiasm and eloquence. (Kate Garraway referred to how positive Dad had been throughout.) He started a blog – Bob the Blogger– about his coronavirus experience back in March, and blogs almost every day. You can read his post about his latest TV appearance here.

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I couldn’t give Bob a hug – that was tough, but I gave myself a gentle hug as Dad came towards me as a symbol of affection. Good Morning Britain presenters Ben Shephard and Kate Garraway spotted that and commented that we can’t give the hugs we want to. Dad said how much better it was to see family face to face. It is the start of better times.

Kate recalled Dad comparing the coronavirus crisis with the Second World War during his earlier GMB interview. Bob explained the key difference today is we are fighting a totally unknown, deadly enemy, and don’t know how to deal with it. He discussed this contrast in more detail in a blog post yesterday.

Dad talked about how happy he has been at Sunrise. It was a blessing that he moved from his home in Penarth six months before the COVID-19 lockdown began. It would have been a huge worry had he still been living alone, although his former neighbours in Penarth such as Therese and Brian would have been wonderfully supportive. As Dad said, he has had no worries and has been happy from the moment he moved in.

Later in the interview, Ria stepped onto the ‘stage’ to say good morning to Bob and to the presenters. It was a wonderful moment, live on national TV. As Ria said, it was rather overwhelming seeing Bob for the first time for many months. “It’s marvellous to see you!” Bob exclaimed with a broad smile to Ria.

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You can watch the Good Morning Britain segment with Dad, Ria and me here:

Monday’s edition of Good Morning Britain was an emotional one for other reasons. Writer Michael Rosen spoke with huge affection about the care he received as he recovered from an almost fatal encounter with COVID-19. Talking about the NHS staff who saved his life, he explained: “Just massive and incredible, they saved my life several times.”

Screenshot 2020-07-15 at 10.05.01Interviewing Michael was an emotional experience for presenter Kate Garraway. This was her first day back after a four month break while husband Derek Draper was in intensive care and came close to death from COVID-19. Movingly, Michael said he hoped his experience gave Kate hope. Welcome back, Kate, and heartfelt best wishes to Derek and Michael.

Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket

Screenshot 2020-07-03 at 15.28.51Growing up in the 1970s and early 1980s, the BBC’s Test Match Special was my summer soundtrack. I loved the ritual of turning on the radio just before 11am in time for the start of play in a test match. It was a treat to hear the rich Hampshire accent of commentator John Arlott, the voice of cricket. Arlott also wrote for The Guardian, taking on the mantle of the legendary Neville Cardus.

The other great name in cricket journalism during the mid 20th century was EW (Jim) Swanton. The two men were chalk and cheese yet Stephen Fay and David Kynaston’s wonderful book Arlott and Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket shows unexpected similarities. Most notably, both men hated racism and were appalled by South Africa’s racist apartheid laws, which segregated races and treated non-whites as second or third class citizens. As pressure grew to cancel South Africa’s 1970 tour of England, Arlott said he would not broadcast tests if the tour went ahead. And Swanton argued strongly that South Africa should field multi-racial teams. That didn’t happen until the 1990s, after the end of apartheid. More on that later.

Continue reading

Coronavirus: explaining and balancing risks

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The risk question: helmet or no helmet?

The coronavirus pandemic has raised an age old question. How do we assess risk? More difficult still, how do we balance competing risks?

The COVID-19 crisis has thrown up a stack of such balancing acts. The most prominent one is where to strike the balance between health and economics. But other trade offs are apparent. Should we shut society down in the hope of killing the virus? How do we help the young, who are by all accounts much less at risk?

Yet our view of risk changes over time. My 16 year old aunt took 13 year old Dad to the cinema in London in the middle of the blitz in 1940, retreating home hours late after an air raid. Less dramatically, as a nine year old I’d venture alone across 1970s Cardiff on my bike to my aunt and uncle’s house in Rhiwbina. No one had ever heard of a bike helmet back then. Perhaps some children tragically ended up under the wheel of an Austin Maxi – but it didn’t stop us exploring on two wheels.

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Don’t get me wrong. We were right to make work and life safer. Too many people died unnecessarily. The Great Western Railway introduced ‘automatic train control’ in 1906 to warn drivers when they were passing a ‘distant’ caution signal. Later, the GWR system applied the brakes if the driver didn’t slow down. It saved countless lives. It took half a century and the catastrophic Harrow & Wealdstone and Lewisham disasters before nationalised British Railways introduced the same safeguards on the rest of the network.

Similarly, once controversial measures to tackle drink driving and smoking now seem like common sense.

Yet human beings are not good at understanding and assessing risk. Take cycling. I have had a cycling helmet for almost 30 years. I usually wear one. (Though I didn’t in the photo opening this post – climbing a very steep hill to Todi in Umbria in 2004.) Most parents today would be horrified by the idea of not putting a helmet on their children as they pedal up a deserted road.

But helmet use should be a choice. We need to get children into active lifestyles, such as cycling, walking and sport, to reduce the risk of obesity. A report in 2017 suggested that 35% of children were overweight or obese at 11. Yet MP Bill Grant demanded that children be forced to wear helmets, so criminalising a child pedalling down a quiet cul-de-sac without a helmet. This shows a complete inability to assess risk. Banning McDonalds and fizzy drinks would be far more effective.

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Lesley Whittle

It’s a similar story with child abduction. The tragic story of Madeleine McCann, still front page news 13 years after the three year old disappeared in 2007, heightened fears that children were at much greater danger than during our childhood. Five years earlier, the murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in Soham, Cambridgeshire shocked the country. Yet child murders are remarkably rare, and are at historically low rates. Most are committed by parents or others known to the child. The difference is that today’s saturation media coverage and social media interest raises the prominence of tragedies. (Although I vividly remember the media frenzy about the awful ordeal of Lesley Whittle, a 17 year old kidnapped and killed by Donald Neilson in 1975.) We need to remember that such appalling cases are vanishingly rare. Be sensible, and teach children how to spot risks. (The age old advice about not taking treats from strangers remains relevant today.)

The communications lessons

Back to 2020, and the coronavirus conundrum. Global companies face a dilemma: do you take the same approach everywhere, or tailor policy and advice by region? Should you keep working from home globally, or allow countries like Australia and New Zealand to return to (close to) normal?

There’s no one answer. But whatever you decide, explain your approach.

Communication is key. It’s striking that the leaders who are natural communicators and educators like Jacinda Ardern have shone in this crisis. Leadership isn’t about bullshit and bluster. The greatest leaders educate the public. This hadn’t struck me until I read Steve Richards’ wonderful study of British prime ministers of the past 40 years. The greatest failures, like Theresa May, don’t even bother. Thatcher famously used her experience as a housewife to explain why the nation needed to spend no more than it earned. (Though the parallel was arguably misconceived.) And Tony Blair – at least before the historic blunder of the Iraq war – was the great communicator, bridging the then gap between traditional Labour and aspiring middle class voters.

Boris Johnson should have all the advantages. He has a vivid turn of phrase, when he remembers to speak English rather than Latin. He’s a larger than life character and people have in the past forgiven him a lot because of that. (Except in Liverpool.)

But the prime minister seems to lack any sensible advice in government. Dominic Cummings may have helped win the Brexit referendum, but so far has proved a disaster as Johnson’s chief adviser. The prime minister has a majority of 80. He should ditch partisan campaigning in favour of statecraft. Ditch the vengeance against people perceived not to be ‘one of us’. Learn a lesson from Roosevelt in the 1930s. Take the public into your confidence. Admit there is no simple answer: that we have to balance health and economics. After all, mass unemployment kills people as well as viruses. Children’s life chances are being damaged by lockdown. Start a conversation.

Cycling my own lost lanes

 

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Lost Lanes – an inspiration

I recently discovered the Lost Lanes series of cycling books by Jack Thurston. They’re an inspiration, with evocative 1930s style covers, gorgeous photos and intriguing touring routes. I can’t wait to explore Rye and Romney Marsh, an area that has intrigued me since reading Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine mysteries set there when I was a child. And those lovely Welsh border roads.

In the meantime, I’m exploring my local lost lanes. Tonight I cycled up to Hodgemoor Wood above Chalfont St Giles on my mountain bike – and promptly got lost. It is uncanny how easily I lose all sense of direction in this small woodland area.

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Classic Chilterns: the view from Mumfords Lane

The real object of this evening’s ride was Mumfords Lane, a narrow lane that links the A40 between Beaconsfield and Gerrards Cross with Layter’s Green near Chalfont St Peter.  I’d never cycled it before but it was a perfect opportunity to widen my route repertoire. There was climb from the main road but my mountain bike’s low gearing made it easy. The view from the top was gorgeous – one I had never seen before, even though it’s barely three miles from home. I’ll be cycling this lost lane again.

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I was lucky to dodge a heavy June shower. I sheltered under a tree as I pulled on a rain jacket. This was the scene as the sun came out as the rain eased over the A40. This was once the main route from West Wales and Oxford to London before the M4 and M40 were built in the 1960s and 1970s.

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I’ve really missed cafe stops on my lockdown bike rides. Especially the longer ones, where a coffee and cake adds to the pleasure. A week ago, I decided to do something about it. I can’t reopen cafes, but I can take my own tea or coffee, thanks to my new Klean Kanteen insulated water bottle. I enjoyed my tea and snack overlooking Maidenhead’s historic road bridge this lunchtime. I even brought my Costa collapsible mug!

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I’ll end on a Lost Lanes note. As a proud Welshman, I smiled when I saw Jack’s note on my copy of Lost Lanes Wales. Cymru am byth – Wales for ever! Thank you, Jack. 

How to solve Garmin Edge false heart rate readings

I’ve had various Garmin cycling GPS devices for almost nine years. I’m a fan, as you will gather from my posts about the Edge 800 and Edge 1000. I’m now mainly using an Edge 1030.

In the past few weeks, I’ve found that the heart rate reading showing on the Edge was wildly inaccurate early in a ride. In some cases, by 60 beats a minute compared with the rate on my Apple Watch. Often the Garmin rate would be falling, even though I was climbing a hill. What was going on?

I followed the care instructions, wetting the heart rate strap before every ride and washing it regularly. But to no effect.

Finally, the penny dropped. I wasn’t wetting two small rectangular patches on the band. here’s one on the right of the band:

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And here’s the other, on the left of this photo (in the middle of the band):

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This should have been obvious looking at the diagram on the band:

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Once I wetted all four patches, the Edge tracked my heart rate perfectly for every ride. That saved me buying a new strap!

Beware of GoPro handlebar mount

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The mount in place as I climb to Glenshee, August 2019

I loved my GoPro handlebar mount. I liked the way I could move the camera to film  ahead or to the side. I made good use of it on last August’s Land’s End to John O’Groats bike ride. In bought it after cycling and gadget blogger DC Rainmaker praised it in a review.

But last week, as I was cycling along a suburban street in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, it broke, catastrophically. I heard the sound of something falling off my bike. A light? No, my GoPro 7 Black camera. The metal joining the two parts of the mount had failed, casting my camera and the top part of the mount onto the road. (The bottom bit remained on the handlebar.) Happily, it wasn’t run over by a car.

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The failed mount

You can see here the point of failure – a metal rod connecting the two parts of the mount.

I contacted GoPro customer support to report the problem. I wasn’t necessarily expecting a refund – I had bought the mount in April last year. But I was shocked when the agent essentially accused me of lying when I said there was no impact causing the catastrophic failure. I was simply cycling along a suburban street. I’d never used it off-road. In any case, shouldn’t a GoPro mount be able to cope with something more than a local, tarmac street? Aren’t these meant to be action cameras?

I guess I will have to look for something sturdier, such as a K-Edge’s metal ones. But it’s a shame, as the GoPro mount suited me. Before it broke on a suburban street.

UPDATE, Monday 15 June

I am delighted to say that after I contacted GoPro again (thanks for suggesting that, DC Rainmaker!) Michele Eve contacted me, apologised for my original experience and offered to send me a replacement. Excellent customer service – thank you!