Land’s End to John O’Groats: travellers’ tales

It’s the ultimate British bike ride: from Land’s End in Cornwall to John O’Groats on Scotland’s far north coast. The End to End. I did the ride in 2002. I’m now starting to dream about doing it again with my son when he’s older.

To feed that dream, I’ve just read two books about other riders’ End to End experiences. My favourite was Ellie Bennett’s Blood Sweat and Gears. Ellie clearly loved and loathed the experience, a contrast most End to End riders will recognise. The sinking feeling as you see yet another West Country hill looming ahead of you. The dread at the number of miles and hills before that night’s destination. And wondering if the rain will ever stop.

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Scottish independence: sleepwalking to the end of Britain?

Scotland decides

Scotland decides

Could this be the summer that sees the end of Britain? Scots could choose independence on 18 September. Yet the Great British Break Up is getting less attention than the Great British Bake Off, at least outside Scotland. Amazingly, the first TV debate between SNP leader Alex Salmond and Better Together’s Alistair Darling wasn’t even shown on TV south of the border. 

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D-Day remembered

Omaha beach, Normandy, France

Into the jaws of death: the Americans land, Omaha beach, 6 June 1944. Photo courtesy of the Nationals Archives & Records Administration, USA

The D-Day Normandy landings were awe-inspiring for countless reasons: the bravery of young men who risked everything. The sacrifice made by those boys a world away from their homes in America and Canada as well as Britain. The courage of French people resisting a brutal enemy to support their liberation. And the unimaginable scale of the assault on Hitler’s European fortress – one of the greatest feats of organisation as well as arms.

This week’s 70th anniversary commemoration of D-Day was humbling and inspiring. Not for the inevitable array of heads of state and government, but for the sight of hundreds of ageing veterans of Operation Overlord visiting the landing beaches for the last time. My generation can hardly imagine what they went through. Next time you’re fretting over a PowerPoint presentation or a cancelled train, think of Normandy 1944.

My mind went back to my mother-in-law Aline’s account of growing up in Sussex during the second world war. Here’s her graphic description of how she and her family found out that D-Day had begun:

“There appeared on the horizon day after day more and more objects; we didn’t know what they were. They covered the horizon as far as you could see, right the way along. And then one night the tugs were going – all night long you could hear them ‘woop-woop; woop-woop’. And my father, who used to go out about seven in the morning came back and said, “You’ll never believe it, they’ve all gone. And we found out later they were the Mulberry harbours.” These were extraordinary prefabricated harbours the size of Dover docks, built in Britain and towed at 5mph to Normandy.

Britain was known as the unsinkable aircraft carrier at this stage in the war because of the millions of troops of many nations stationed here ready for the great invasion. Aline talks about how she and her older sister were befriended by a Canadian solder who was part of the Commonwealth forces encamped near Bognor. Her sister nearly missed an 11 plus exam because a convoy of tanks was passing as she waited to cross to the exam hall. One tank stopped to let her across – stopping the whole convoy! Then one day they discovered the Canadian soldier and his comrades had gone, like the Mulberry harbours, across the channel to France.

Back in 1998, I got the ferry to Ouistreham (Sword beach) and cycled along the D-Day coast to Arromanches. As I freewheeled down the hill towards the town, I could see the remains of the Mulberry harbour in the bay. It was a bleak scene in the rain, but my discomfort was nothing to that experienced by the seasick liberators of 1944, wading ashore to deadly gunfire. I was sorry I didn’t have time to visit the excellent D-Day museum at Arromanches, with the story of the harbour that handled 4 million tonnes of supplies and 500,000 vehicles in the 10 months it was used.

D-Day echoes down the years. Nearly 40 years after the liberation of Europe began, the British carried out another audacious landing at San Carlos in the Falkland islands to begin the end of Argentina’s occupation of the islands. On Friday 21 May 1982 I listened to Radio 4’s PM programme’s account of the invasion. Growing up on memories of the second world war, I never imagined that Britain would once again be sending men to war in assault ships. The echoes of the 1944 operation were evident – just weeks after Britain had sunk Argentina’s Pearl Harbor survivor, General Belgrano. The war may have been controversial, but the courage displayed was timeless.

Weymouth D-Day memorial

D-Day remembered: Weymouth, Dorset

Back to 1944. England’s south coast was the launchpad for the invasion. Weymouth in Dorset was a key location, and the American rangers who suffered such a toll scaling the cliffs of Normandy embarked here. In 2010 I was moved to see a British veteran paying tribute in Weymouth to those who died in the D-Day ‘Tiger’ training exercise in Lyme Bay.

Weymouth Lyme Bay D-Day memorial

Paying tribute to the fallen

You can see a US tank recovered from the Tiger disaster at Slapton Sands in Devon.

We all owe a huge debt to the men and women who risked everything for our freedom.

The Ordnance Survey map addict

One of the joys of browsing in a real, rather than online, bookshop is coming across a brilliant book on a subject you’d never think of reading about. So I was chuffed to discover Map Addict by Mike Parker, published by Collins, during a holiday visit to Waterstone’s in Dorchester, Dorset.

OS metric 50:000 map Rhondda

Ordnance Survey goes metric: the Rhondda, 1970s

I’ve blogged before about my love of maps and the map’s evolution from a printed sheet to an icon on a smartphone. Parker’s book brought back many more memories – such as the lack of any photo on the cover of the original Ordnance Survey maps that replaced the much-loved one inch series. And the fact the 1:50 000 series index map, showing which map covered which part of Great Britain, was cut by a line across the country indicating that the northern maps would only appear two years later, in 1976.

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Dorset delight

Jurassic Coast

Dorset’s Durdle Door

We’re enjoying a holiday in Dorset, one of England’s most attractive counties. It’s our third family holiday here, and the first since Owen was a toddler.

We’ve barely scratched the surface of what Thomas Hardy’s Wessex has to offer. Here are some of our favourites – with the health warning that this is a personal choice rather than an exhaustive list.

Best museum: The Tank Museum, Bovington Continue reading

Land’s End to John O’Groats: the Great British bike ride

 

Land's End to John O'Groats

The end to end: cycling to John O’groats

Britain’s roads were full of cyclists this weekend, as glorious weather added to the eternal appeal of exploring on two wheels. I wonder how many of these weekend cyclists dreamed of doing the ultimate British bike ride, from Land’s End to John O’Groats? Continue reading

In praise of Stephen Sutton

This is one of my shortest blogposts.

I just want to pay tribute to Stephen Sutton, the teenage cancer fundraiser, who has died at 19. It’s heartbreaking to watch and hear today’s archive recordings of him. But what breathtaking maturity and wisdom.

His parents deserve huge thanks for raising such a credit to humanity. At a time when there are so many examples of man’s cruelty to mankind, Stephen’s example and legacy will live on.

Grim up north: The Guardian’s hatchet job

 

Newcastle

Northern pride: Gateshead and Newcastle upon Tyne

The Guardian was once a proud northern newspaper. As The Manchester Guardian, it was one of that great city’s treasures, along with the Hallé, Manchester University and free trade. The historian AJP Taylor celebrated it in his essay about the city in his book Essays in English History.

How things change. The Guardian is now arguably our most London centric national newspaper. Its outlook is Islington not Irwell. It’s hard to imagine the Manchester Guardian publishing Saturday’s ‘It’s grim up north’ article by Andy Beckett about the north east. True, Beckett set out to portray the impact of government spending cuts on the region. And no one would pretend that the north doest face some stark challenges. But it was a bleak and inaccurate portrait, describing the north east as our remotest region – a surprise to anyone enjoying the excellent transport connections from Newcastle. And I have news for Andy Beckett: distance from Islington isn’t a definitive measure of remoteness. On that basis, Sydney, Australia would be the back of beyond.

Beckett’s article has sparked outrage. Hartlepool MP Iain Wright pointed out the irony of casting the region as a British Detroit given the success of Nissan’s plant in Sunderland, which he says builds more cars than Italy. PR consultant Sarah Hall has launched a petition under the hashtag #NEandProud asking Beckett to return to the north east to write a more balanced piece.

I first visited the north of England when I was 15, returning regularly when I was at university in Leicester. I loved the sheer difference between Yorkshire and the south of England. (It took longer for me to get to Newcastle.) I was struck by the stunning scenery and the vibrant cities. As AJP Taylor said of Manchester, part of the glory of the north east is a refreshingly different outlook from that of London and the south east.

The media love lazy stereotypes. Growing up in Cardiff I was all too familiar with them; I grew weary of explaining that Cardiff wasn’t in the valleys and that the only coal mine in the Welsh capital was in the National Museum.

One last thought. The great northern cities were products of a fiercely proud local tradition. They were not forged by dictat from London. Britain is so much poorer for the miserable and demeaning centralism that has blighted our politics over the past forty years. If Andy Beckett wants to win back a few friends, he could do worse than start a campaign to put the local back into public life.

PS: thanks to CIPR president Stephen Waddington and Stuart Bruce for pointing out the Andy Beckett article after I missed it first time round.

Newcastle Gateshead by night

Light on the Tyne: Newcastle and Gateshead

 

Breaking Britain: Scotland’s choice

Image

Above: Scotland’s Future launch. Photo: Scottish Government

Fifty years ago, the idea that Scotland would leave the United Kingdom would have been almost impossible to imagine. But this week the Scottish Government launched a white paper, Scotland’s Future, setting out the case for just that in next year’s independence referendum.

For a party proclaiming the case for divorce, the SNP seem curiously keen on many aspects of the United Kingdom. The Queen would still be head of state. The pound sterling would still be Scotland’s currency. And the white paper even reassures Scots that they’d still enjoy Doctor Who, Strictly Come Dancing and CBeebies – even though the BBC would be replaced by a Scots equivalent. Heaven help us if Waybuloo is the only thing holding back the break up of Britain.

As many have said, it’s far from certain if the remaining UK countries would allow all this to happen. But it’s a clever ploy by Alex Salmond to suggest Scotland can have it all outside the union.

Scotland is, of course, right to decide its future. The fact the vote is even happening is an indictment of the failures of successive Westminster governments to govern for the whole of these islands. As I wrote a year ago, there are echoes here of the way British malevolence and incompetence led Ireland to independence rather than home rule.

I still hope that Scotland chooses to help us reshape Britain, rather than break it. Scotland has played a hugely important part in our nation’s history. It, like Wales, has shown that we can enjoy multiple identities: Scottish/Welsh and British. That diversity is a great model for life in these islands. It would be a great shame to diminish Celtic influence in Britain.

Margaret Thatcher – the woman who changed Britain

The passing of Margaret Thatcher

The passing of Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher made history. She was Britain’s first woman prime minister – a landmark that will live in history books long after the controversies of her premiership have faded. She defeated an Argentinian dictator and British union barons. She sold off most nationalised industries. And she helped end the Cold War.

When she became prime minister in May 1979, Britain was in a sorry state. The winter of discontent in 1978/79 made her victory inevitable. While many felt sympathy for low paid workers fighting for higher pay, millions decided enough was enough – ‘we can’t go on like this’ was a common feeling. People were sickened by unions that intimidated members into going on strike and used mobs to enforce their will. Two governments had been destroyed by the unions, in 1974 and 1979. Thatcher was determined it wouldn’t happen again.

Yet Thatcher was often more cautious in her early days than her legend suggests. She gave in to the miners’ demands in 1981 rather than risk defeat. The early union reforms were modest. And privatisation wasn’t even mentioned in the 1979 election manifesto.

She was lucky in her enemies. Winning the Falklands War against the Argentinian junta – a brutal dictatorship that murdered thousands of its own people – ended her vulnerable early days when the SDP/Liberal Alliance was threatening the Tories and Labour alike. Arthur Scargill stupidly bullied the miners into the 1984/85 strike when winter was ending and coal stocks were high.

In time, she became more reckless, more strident, most famously in the disastrous poll tax. John Campbell showed graphically in volume two of his biography of Margaret Thatcher, Iron Lady, how disfunctional her government became in its last years because of her behaviour. Her fall in November 1990 was no surprise.

She also began the long decline of local pride and enterprise, thanks to the emasculation of local government. For the daughter of an alderman, she was indifferent to local initiative  and hostile to the idea of an alternative power base, leading to the abolition of Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council and the English metropolitan counties. Under her rule, Britain saw the rise of private wealth and public squalor, and a sense that selfishness was acceptable.

Labour isn't Working - most bitterly ironic Thatcher poster

Labour isn’t Working – Thatcher’s most cynical campaign poster, 1978

She was also callous in her indifference to the fate of communities devastated by the mass unemployment her government unleashed. The 1981 budget was one of the most brutal of the post war era, leading many to accuse her of using mass unemployment as a weapon to achieve her aims. (And in the doomed attempt to test the economic theory called monetarism.) Similarly, she deliberately shifted the tax burden from the wealthy to the less well off in the move to indirect taxation. Her choice of St Francis’s prayer – “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony” – was cynical, as was the 1978 election poster condemning Labour for high unemployment, above. Under her rule, the jobless total reached three million for the first time since the 1930s.

Finally, Margaret Thatcher suffered the fate of someone who lived only for work. She had no hinterland, as Denis Healey put it. This made her a very bad member of the former prime ministers’ club, as her successor John Major found out to his cost.

On the day Margaret Thatcher died, it’s hard to imagine a time before her time in Downing Street. But my first Thatcher memory was her appearance as education secretary 40 years  on the BBC children’s programme Val Meets the VIPs. (Val was the Blue Peter presenter Valerie Singleton.) In October 1978, our family friends in Germany asked us what we thought of Mrs Thatcher. We explained we weren’t impressed by her stridency…

Tonight, Britain and the world is remembering Britain’s most remarkable postwar prime minister. Our country is the nation she created – for good and ill. None of her successors has matched her ability to explain their mission. And no man since 1979 has dared to suggest that a woman couldn’t be prime minister. That might be as great a legacy as any.