These are the strangest of times. Our lives have changed almost overnight. Those carefree evenings out, family get-togethers and shopping trips are fading memories. (Although it’s a relief we no longer face that scramble to find a meeting room.)
Yet in Britain, for now, we can still go out for exercise. It has become a precious escape for me – a time away from the laptop screen, getting a physical challenge as a change from the intellectual challenge of communications work in the time of coronavirus.
It helps that the first week of Britain’s lockdown has been gloriously sunny. (Although that may have forced the lockdown, as crowds were gathering in London and people were flocking to Snowdonia and other national parks.) I revelled in the sunshine as I enjoyed my regular bike rides in Buckinghamshire, snatching an hour a time from work.
Don’t underestimate the importance of these daily escapes. These strange times are tough on us all. (Although obviously those at the front line in the NHS, care homes and serving the public face to face have a far greater challenge.) Getting out for some decent exercise is good for body and soul. You may experience a high that will get you through the loss of all those activities that you can’t enjoy at present.
Let’s make the most of these days of cycling and running while we can.
We’ve all seen the images of empty supermarket shelves. No loo paper for love nor money. Yet Britain’s supermarkets are doing a great job adapting to demand, and the need to let people shop while keeping apart, based on my experience at Tesco, Gerrards Cross.
I had a short wait getting into the store, as staff regulated the numbers in the shop. We were offered sanitiser at the entrance, which I used to wipe the trolley handle and my hands.
Once inside, I found everything I needed apart from liquid soap. It was a strangely calm shopping experience with fewer people in the shop. I did feel I needed to get it down quickly to allow others in.
There’s been a lot of talk of stockpiling – and I referred to this in my post last weekend about the British government’s communications response to COVID-19. We may have been too quick to judge: according to Kantar, the empty shelves reflect the fact we’re all adding a few more items to our baskets and making more shopping trips, rather than stockpiling.
PS: this unremarkable Tesco store has an unusual history. It was built over the Chiltern railway line and the tunnel collapsed on the tracks just after my train passed through in 2005.
This is the cottage to which poet John Milton fled in 1665 to escape London’s Great Plague. Now a museum commemorating Milton’s life and works, it has, ironically, been closed by the coronavirus pandemic.
The 1665 plague outbreak was the last epidemic of bubonic plague in England. It killed around 100,000 people – a quarter of London’s population. No wonder Milton fled the city with his family. He completed his famous epic poem, Paradise Lost, here.
Milton was also a republican support of Oliver Cromwell. He served in the Commonwealth government as Secretary for Foreign Tongues – what a wonderful title for a poet serving as a minister.
Today, the authorities managing the response to COVID-19 are discouraging anyone wishing to follow Milton’s example and escape from London to the country. Let’s hope the coronavirus outbreak soon passes and visitors will again be discovering the last surviving home of one of England’s most famous poets.
This is my first blogpost for over two years. Have you missed me? I fell off the blogging bandwagon just after Britain voted for Brexit. I swapped the blog for the bike, and have been healthier as a result.
But I felt that I’d lost my voice. I’ve always loved writing, and blogging let me express myself, even if my wonderful Dad was the only person listening. So I’m back. I don’t know how long it will last but I wanted to record what has become a summer of wonder – the best in Britain since the scorched summer of 1976.
I mentioned Brexit earlier on, so it seems appropriate to combine politics and cycling in a photo. Earlier today, I cycled past Chequers, the prime minister’s country home in Buckinghamshire. The road up to Chequers from Butlers Cross is a steep one, but it seems easier after my summer of cycling. Chequers was given to the nation a century ago to allow its PMs a place for rest and recreation. It’s doubtful that Theresa May gained much rest there in recent weeks with her disastrous Brexit Cabinet showdown and President Trump’s visit. But I found it restful: after completing the climb from Butlers Cross, I always love the 18mph swoop down to Great Missenden.
I completed the 32 mile ride with the satisfaction of knowing I’d just completed 2,000 miles of cycling in 2018. That’s good preparation for Prudential Ride London next weekend. Watch this space!
Cliveden will forever be associated with the Profumo affair of the early 1960s. Secretary of State for War John Profumo was forced to resign after lying about his brief affair with Christine Keeler, which began one summer weekend at Cliveden, the then home of the Astor family.
Cliveden today is a luxury hotel, with the lovely National Trust grounds open to the public. Owen and I cycled here on Sunday on our tandem, making the most of a glorious early spring day. As we arrived by bike, we were both given a £1 voucher to use in the excellent cafe.
I doubt that Profumo or Keeler arrived by bike, but Cliveden does make an excellent destination for a cycle ride.
PS: Profumo died 10 years ago this month. He remains the role model for how public figures should behave after a scandal, as I blogged a decade ago.
Collapse! Tesco tunnel Gerrards Cross after the disaster
Ten years ago today, I had a lucky escape. I was on the last train through the ‘Tesco tunnel’ at Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire, before it dramatically collapsed, closing the Chiltern main line for almost two months.
The tunnel was created to allow a Tesco store to be built over the railway cutting. The project was controversial, and many people in the village protested against it. It only went ahead after John Prescott overturned the council’s refusal to allow the store to be built.
I was on my way back from a work trip to Chester that evening, Thursday 30 June 2005. It was a lovely evening, and I had enjoyed the journey south. My train passed through the tunnel at around 7.15. It collapsed about 15 minutes later.
The scene three days later
The weekend after, people flocked to the scene to see the damage.
Witnessing the aftermath
Work resumed on the project two years later, and Tesco Gerrards Cross opened in November 2010, some 14 years after it was commissioned by the company. Despite the protests over the years, it’s proved popular with locals.
On the last day of 2014, I blogged that 2015 would see me riding 100 miles in a day: a cycling century. Yesterday was the day. I repeated my 2005 century route through Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire and Oxfordshire, stopping at Buckingham for lunch.
The cycling guides give helpful and sensible advice on how to prepare for a century. They tell you to build up your stamina with regular long rides. I certainly did a lot of cycling in the three weeks before the big ride, making the most of the long June evenings to get on the bike. But none was more than ten miles…
That lack of long distance experience no doubt contributed to the fatigue I felt as I finished. It also explained my usual failure to eat before feeling hungry, the curse of the ill-prepared long distance cyclist. But I finished strongly, powering at 17mph or more along the A413 from Wendover to Amersham and beyond. (I love quiet roads, but after 85 miles I like to avoid unnecessary hills…)
When I got home, I was delighted to find that I’d completed the century at an average speed of 13.7mph. For me, that’s a miracle: my fastest century. On my first century in 1995, I was pleased to maintain 13mph for the first 75 miles. (I finished at around 12.75mph.) True, this time I had the benefit of a wonderful road bike, my eight month old Specialized Roubaix. In 2005, I was riding my trusty Dawes Super Galaxy with a pannier full of maps and an SLR camera. But I had just got back from a 315 mile cycle tour of the hilly west country.
Britain elected a new parliament today. I always feel humble and emotional when I vote. Men and women have died for democracy – and I recall those long ago battles when I place a cross on a ballot paper.
Queuing to vote, 2015
As I write this, the BBC’s exit poll suggests the Tories have done better than expected. We shall see.
As we took Owen with us to the polling station in Chalfont St Giles, I explained that his paternal great grandmothers both waited a long time to vote – because women were deprived of equal votes with men until 1928. I think my dad’s mother was 38 before she voted in 1929. Her last vote would have been in the 1992 election.
If you didn’t vote, don’t complain if you don’t like the government that results from today’s election.
PS: I turned the car radio on for the 8am news headlines as we went to vote. The main story on BBC Radio 5 Live was tomorrow’s 70th anniversary of VE Day. An important day from his grandparents’ early days.
I don’t imagine that Dad’s Army’s Captain Mainwaring ever tasted a frappucino. (They came long after 1940.) But the Chalfont St Giles, Bucks pub that posed as Mainwaring’s bank in the Dad’s Army film is about to open as Costa’s latest coffee shop.
The Crown becomes a Costa
Sadly, the much loved Crown closed last year, as I blogged in May. It was one of our favourite venues for anniversary and birthday dinners. (I took my very first iPhone photo on one such occasion in 2008.) Losing a pub is always a sad event, but if we have to swap dinner for coffee a Costa is a good choice. (Make mine a skinny latte and tiffin…)
Sign of the times
PS: we paid our first visit today, 20 December. They’ve done a very nice job converting the pub. The coffee’s great too!
Burnham Beeches is a lovely part of the City of London. Actually, it’s a corner of Buckinghamshire that the City of London bought to save it for the nation in 1880.
Curiously, this woodland wonderland is almost the same size as London’s square mile. But that’s where the similarities end. This is a precious corner of south east England, with ancient woodland and nature habitats thriving under the benign stewardship of the City of London Corporation.
We visited on the May Day bank holiday, yet the place seemed wonderfully quiet, despite a busy car park. We saw Exmoor ponies running joyfully through the wooded tracks. We loved the wood sculptures (below). We’ll return with our bikes to explore the Burnham Beeches trails.
Burnham Beeches wood sculpture
To add to the geographical oddities, there’s a sign here pointing to Egypt! (Egypt Bucks: barely a hamlet, never mind a country.)
Egypt in Buckinghamshire
Finally, here’s the City of London’s rather nice video about Burnham Beeches.