The Nice Man Cometh - Tour displacement therapy - CycleBlaze

The Nice Man Cometh

To Wheathampsted in the heart of Hertfordshire and back

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A couple of winters ago, in order to stave off winter blues and bring our not-so-threatening English season into perspective (we might occasionally get a frost, and sometimes it will hover around zero celsius for a few days) I became mildly fixated on the famous and ill-fated 1910 expedition led by Captain Scott to attempt to be the first to reach the South Pole. There's a lot of appeal in this story, and it definitely makes snug reading while you're sitting with a nice warm glass of mulled wine: the daring action, the incredibly fearsome mountains-of-madness remoteness, and the stoic tragedy when the party both failed to reach the Pole first, and then sickened, slowed, and froze to death on the return journey just a few miles before reaching their supply depot and safety. 

But I came to this from the writings of another figure, present for virtually the whole expedition - except the doomed final push across the high Antarctic plateau itself - that added a whole new dimension to the story. Apsley Cherry-Garrard (universally known as Cherry, and I'll adopt that for brevity) accompanied Scott all the way to the top: man-hauling the tonnes of sledges up the dreadful Beardmore glacier, only to sent back with the last returning party. This was a dreadful disappointment, and turned to horror and guilt that would plague him for the rest of his life, when he later unknowingly came within 15km of rescuing the doomed party on their return; and ended up discovering Scott's frozen body when part of the search party. But his experiences did allowed us to read his vivid and idiosyncratic account of the whole expedition.

Apsley Cherry-Garrard in the Antarctic. Wikipedia.
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In many other - particularly earlier - tales of exploration of the edge of the known world, the emphasis is on the thrills, rather macho feats and late-Victorian stoicism. Someone like Shackleton - another famous English failure (we hold them close) - was a man who once peremptorily shot the ships cat ("Mrs. Chippy") upon the ship becoming frozen in, and engendered the life-long bitter enmity of his carpenter, which endured long after their miraculous rescue. 

Mrs Chippy on the Ice Field by the Stuckist artist, Wolf Howard
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But in Cherry's account, I'm struck by how modern they all sound. They all have a touching consideration for the welfare of their animals - refusing to feed sled dogs to sled dogs, as was the standard at the time, and mourning their ponies when they had to be shot. Cherry continually writes about the sublime, overwhelming visions of nature's power he sees - and almost always contrasts this with their downtrodden, disintegrating state and their fragility in the face of it. There's none of the Victorian mastery over nature or their fellow man. They're doing what they had to do out of a kind of duty: towards science and towards Scott, but quickly for the art of the endeavour itself and of the necessity to survive.

This is most clear in his description of The Worst Journey in the World - not the journey towards the pole, in fact, but the Winter Journey, made in the depths of the cold and continuous darkness, some 60 miles of man-hauling sledges with hundreds of kilograms of supplies. The aim of this was to collect samples of unhatched Emperor Penguin eggs, which had never before been retrieved - to test the theory, common at the time, that evolution was replayed in the early embryology of primitive animals. 

That title was not an exaggeration. In pitch blackness, with temperatures commonly at -60 centigrade (-77 F), they trudged through snow so cold their sledges could not longer slide. Their clothes froze into a standing shape and couldn't be thawed; at one point, their tongues froze in their mouths and Cherry's teeth splintered due to the intensity of chattering. Cherry could hardly see - his glasses were useless - and was terrified about falling into one of the bottomless crevasses - which he did, again and again. On reaching Cape Crozier, they managed to retrieve three precious intact eggs, but then become stuck in an ersatz igloo roofed with their tent during a force 11 blizzard that lasted three days. When it snatched off the roof, they lay in the snow waiting patiently to die. Astonishingly, they survived for two more days, and even more astonishingly, their tent was spotted just half a mile away - without it they would never have made it back. All three members made it back to base camp. Ultimately the eggs made it to England, still intact. The theory embryological theory was proven wrong. The two other members of the expedition died with Scott a year later.

I find the rapid juxtaposition of such different passages as these striking and moving:

I for one had come to that point of suffering at which I did not really care if only I could die without much pain. They talk of the heroism of the dying - they little know - it would be so easy to die, a dose of morphia, a friendly crevasse, and beautiful sleep. The trouble is to go on...

In civilization men are taken at their own valuation ... Not so down South. These two men went through the Winter Journey and lived: later they went through the Polar Journey and died. They were gold, pure, shining, unalloyed. Words cannot express how good their companionship was .... when later we were sure, so far as we can be sure of anything, that we must die they were cheerful. It is hard that often such men must go first when others far less worthy remain.

I wish I could take you on to the great Ice Barrier some calm evening when the sun is just dipping in the middle of the night ... all the softest colours God has made are in the snow; on Erebus to the west, where the wind can scarcely move his cloud of smoke; and on Terror to the east, not so high, and more regular in form. How peaceful and dignified it all is.

I recently found out, through a review of his biography entitled The Nice Man Cometh, that Apsley Cherry-Garrard lived the rest of his life on his family estate in Hertfordshire. He became something of a recluse, continually working through his experiences through writing them down, suffering from what we would now call PTSD. He is buried in the little town of Wheathampsted, somewhere between the new-town accretions of Luton and Welwyn.

I can appreciate his story for the Werner Herzog-esque exploration of the extremes and limits of human experience and the danger of the sublime. But on a very, very minor level maybe I identify with it a bit too. Cycle touring can be a mission to go and find the sublime in nature. We push ourselves as far as we can go, and work through it by ... writing it down. Is it absurd to remember the worst journey in the world while cycling through blooming, benevolent southern England in spring? Probably. But I do know that the landscapes Cherry pined for in the endless darkness of the Antarctic winter would have been the Hertfordshire of his childhood on a sunny day.

Above: camp below the Beardmore glacier reaching up the Antarctic mountains. Below: Hertfordshire countryside near the Garrard estate, Lamer.
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The wind was in the north, and I figured I could get all the way to central Hertfordshire - within 10 miles of St. Albans and the notorious London orbital road M25 - and back in an extended trip. I planned quite carefully, as we're not in Kansas/Bedfordshire anymore - this is the land of large, prosperous commuter towns serving London, and I wanted to avoid both the towns themselves and anywhere people might congregate.

The easiest way to the south led me exactly the same route as I'd used on the previous two trips. So I apologise for the monotony. I have dialed down the number of repetitive photographs and description however. Needless to say the route took me out towards Ashwell and into Hertfordshire, and then over the hills to finally descent to the Baldock road.

This is the way to leave Potton to the South - no road required
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Looking over the horse paddocks towards Potton
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Becoming this sandy little bridleway
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View across to the little village of Wrestlingworth
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Some big farm machinery about. I hoped to get a closer shot, but it was actually bloody fast and outran me
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A different tumbledown barn
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Very much flying the flag for the health workers during the pandemic. I'm very impressed they got a custom flag made so quickly!
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There are now cows grazing the underwhelming pre-Roman hill fort
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A mysterious den - badgers, most likely
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Climbing up to the big haystack, which is now something of a landmark for me as I pass this way
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Looking down into Baldock, the smaller and older of the towns in the vale
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Train on the Cambridge line
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Descending into the valley, we cross underneath the Great North Road, formally the A1(M)
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After crossing the Ivel as before I was on the edge of Letchworth, and picked up the "green wheel" cycleway that follows its perimeter. Instead of turning north back towards Stotfold and Bedfordshire, though, we would continue south, skirting through Letchworth in what I hoped would be a rapid and suitably isolated fashion. 

Letchworth was the very first planned town of the "Garden Cities" movement, based on the thinking of Ebenezer Howard. Wanting to construct decent places to live to replace the terrible, slum-condition housing stock in places like the East-end of London, and based upon the idea of a fusion of the town and the country, Letchworth began to be constructed in the 1910s. Such planned towns are relatively rare in England and are typically not considered outstandingly attractive places to live - we'll come to Stevenage later on. But Letchworth really works: it has wide boulevards and art-deco architecture, and a lot of interesting and idiosyncratic shops.

I followed the cycleway to cut off the top of the town, hoping to quickly pick up a route to the west so I could bypass the next town along, pretty and gentrified Hitchin. I was only partially successful, as I found myself crossing Norton common, busy with families.

The three magnets of the Garden City movement is still the symbol of Letchworth. Obviously I'm headed for "lack of society, beauty of nature" today.
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A surprisingly rustic stretch of the green wheel cycleway that surrounds Letchworth
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Rather eerie and deserted play park outside Letchworth
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Typical Letchworth architecture. The gracious houses, wide boulevards and mature trees now make this an attractive (and increasingly pricey) place to live.
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Norton common looked very pretty. Unfortunately, everybody else had the same idea (not sure why this shot has so few people in, as I spent most of my time trying to dodge them).
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More typical Letchworth architecture
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I spun out of Letchworth on one of the main roads out of town - normally I'd avoid this, but today there were more pedestrians and cyclists, most of them using the pavement, than there were cars. For whatever reason the virus situation seems to have increased people's caution when driving as well: throughout the day I would almost Swedish-levels of courtesy from the drivers of Hertfordshire - being waved out at junctions or given way to in traffic (normally unheard of!) - verging on timidity, as in the case of the car that failed to overtake me at 12mph for about 5 minutes on the relatively wide road out of Letchworth. Much better than the other way around, but the change is quite striking.

After this I was very much ready to leave the town-country for the true country routes again, and thankfully spun down the long, sandy lane towards Ickleford.

Outskirts of Letchworth: the Wilburys have stopped travelling
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Sandy route across the fields to Ickleford, part of the ancient Icknield way. I ran into part of this on the way to Essex last week as well - this pre-Roman route runs all the way over the hills and chalk downs to Dorset - and gives its name to the village.
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The turrets and towers of Fairfield were visible looking over the fields - I often see this from the motorway, but have never been so close before. Very incongruously, this is in fact a planned estate of modern houses built inside the grounds of a manor house between Letchworth and Arlesey.
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I cursed a bit when I came to this obstruction, the two flights of stairs up a foot bridge to cross the railway. Checking the GPS I determined I was indeed on the right route, and it was a designated bridleway for cycles and horses (!).
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Fortunately without a full load it's not too big a deal to carry the bike over the top. The East Coast mainline runs north here straight as a die back into Bedfordshire. It pretty much follows the course of the Great North road, running to York and ultimately Edinburgh.
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I'm guessing a sign for "Gerry's hole" is an inevitable target for vandalism
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Cool painted stone mascot on a trail sign
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Crossing a satisfyingly higgledypiggledy bridge made of old railway sleepers into Ickleford
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From Ickleford I could cut across the north of Hitchin, avoiding the town and taking a cycleway alongside the little river Oughton to cut all the way west of it. From here I'd have pretty much clear countryside all the way to Wheathampsted. I'd done this journey in the depths of January one year, and somehow failed to extrapolate the few walkers out even then to how popular it would be on this sunny weekend. The path is narrow, only a couple of metres wide as it runs through the marshes, and I tried my best to stay as distanced for the walkers, joggers, and families cycling as I could. 

The Hitchin "outer orbital path" (HOOP) by the little river Oughton. A pretty route, but damn it was crammed with people.
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This is what I mean. I did my best to stay as far as possible as I passed.
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Fortunately as I got further from the town the density of people went down, and the track opened up
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It's a rare occasion when I'm glad to leave a pretty off-road section and join a relatively trafficked main road - but this was one of them, as I knew there'd be far fewer pedestrians from here
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There would be horses about, however
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I could now start working south, into the wedge of unspoilt Hertfordshire countryside that is jammed between the large and troubled town of Luton, to the west, and the populated new towns of Hertfordshire, Welwyn and Stevenage, to the east. Out here you would never know the proximity of these dubious experiments in urban development.

Before entering the real countryside, I had to cross over my old friend the A505, the long road that cuts across Cambridgeshire and Essex and passes out of Hitchin towards Luton. It's a dual carriageway here and an uncommonly bendy and hilly one. Last time I was here I came across a very harassed looking fellow, who explained he was the driver of a school bus full of children that had broken down in the layby. He'd given up trying to keep them entertained/under control and had retired a distance outside for a smoke!

I didn't like this - the Pirton road - at all when I'd cycled it in winter. Today it was empty though, and a welcome relief from the proximity of people
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Wibbly Wobbly Lane! They've tried to replace it with the most bland name imaginable, but it'll always be Wibbly Wobbly to me. I could take this tiny lane as a shortcut to the A505
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It's good to be out in the glowing countryside. Lots of spring lambs, gamboling playfully, were about. Have you ever seen a playful sheep? I wonder when lambs lose their youthful verve.
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Approaching the A505, someone has peppered the sign with a shotgun. Quite an unusual sight in England, and certainly the result of hi jinks rather a concerted protest.
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Fortunately, like most of the roads, the A505 was empty today and easy to cross
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Rural Crime #3! Fly tipping (not to be confused with Cow-tipping) really is an infuriatingly petty crime.
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Beyond this the lane continues, and truly lives up to its name in becoming both wibbly and wobbly
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And pretty. Very, very pretty.
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Meeting point of several rights-of-way
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After a delving a kilometre or so into the roadless countryside, I spotted a tree stump in a secluded path and thought this was a good time for my lunch. After ten minutes or so of munching I was deeply engrossed in my book when I was startled by a lady walking striding down the lanes. She greeted me in a wonderful hail-fellow-well-met style exclaiming "it's a beautiful day - we just have to be out!".

Lunch spot down a secluded path. It was quite hot now - you can see the intensity of the shadows, not to mention the light gleaming off the Brooks!
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I knew I now had a wonderful 4km or so of off-roading, and another 6 of very quiet lanes taking me to Austage end and Whitwell, up into the increasingly hilly landscape that makes up the downs running north of London all through Hertfordshire - the end of the n hills that I knew well from my Oxfordshire days. The landscape glowed green in the sunshine, and spring lambs bounded out to greet me when I passed their fields. I passed a couple of people but could easily now give them a wide berth. Much better!

Continuing down the lane, the landscape starts to roll up as we approach the chalk escarpment, the Chilterns, which cuts all across Hertfordshire before rolling into Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire
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The going was very good indeed now
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Spring lambs trotting after their mother
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or playfully exploring with old tree trunk
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This is certainly the grounds of a manor house of some sort - they always look much less intensively worked than the standard farms
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I emerged onto the road in Austage End, and (after both a navigational flub that sent me the wrong way, and avoiding my intended off-road route which was occupied by a few too many walkers for my liking) headed up the hill on the back road. My intention was to pick up the off-road route at the top of the hill and then continue as before. I'm glad I did!

Climbing up the hill at Austage end. Apparently this is a 12% grade, and it's a good 80m climb. Possibly a good idea to avoid doing this off-road, particularly if there were lots of walkers about which I would struggle to overtake!
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Lots of visitors' cars parked at the entrance to the off-road track. It really was striking how many more people there were about in these parts, compared to further north.
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The woods were bedded with a continuous carpet of bluebells
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Lots more pheasants about. I couldn't get one it looking down the camera lens, this time.
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Emerging back out onto the road at King's Walden, there was some lovely original buildings. This is well-maintained and very much lived in, but a clue to its antiquity is the small, irregular panes in the windows. Late 1600s?
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A very nice and very rural pub with an appropriate name. I hope these old places survive their closure during the epidemic.
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Coming into the village of Whitwell on the river Mimram, there are these remarkable structures. My idea was they were old fish ponds - but they are in fact Victorian watercress beds. The cultivation of water-cress in this way was only invented in 1815, and became quite a local industry in the Chiltern valleys.
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Pleasingly uneven old house in Whitwell
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My next destination was Ayot St. Lawrence - again, I could cut across country. This would be a convenient juncture to consider whether I wanted to press on to Wheathampsted - I wasn't sure if the churchyard would be accessible, and it would add another 15km or so onto the route - or to turn to the east and head directly towards Stevenage.  I'd covered 50km already, but (unlike the Essex ride!) was barely feeling it.

The route down towards Ayot was perfect cycling, but again I passed quite a number of walkers. The storms a couple of months ago had brought down a huge blockade of branches and twigs on one sunken track; fortunately it was easy enough to lug the bike up into the surrounding field and get passed it.

The cut to the Codicote road, part of the "Hertfordshire Way". It seemed every track I went down there were at least one or two cars of walkers parked up.
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The official route is the track, sunken below the level of the surrounding fields, to the right - but it was very thoroughly blocked by fallen trees. Fortunately it was reasonably easy to get around.
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Some really impressive moai-style carved heads
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Again, conjures up the amusing image of someone trying to get their car down here. "Are you *sure* this is the right way, dear?"
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I arrived in Ayot St. L with 55km on the clock and feeling pretty enthusiastic about completing the ride to Wheathampsted. Ayot was a charming place - excessively so, in fact, as it seems that in normal times it's a bit of a tourist honey-pot, and had not entirely escaped this fate under the restrictions. There were a good half-dozen families poking about the village as I cycled through. So it didn't seem the best place to stop - even though it is full of interest. Ayot St. Lawrence was on the edge of Apsley CG's country estate, Lamer, and was the home of his good friend, George Bernard Shaw, for most of his life. Unwittingly I passed both "Shaw's Corner" and through the lands of Lamer, without making the connection.

The ruins of the very ancient St. Lawrence's church, which gave its name to the village - the nave dates back 900 years to the 12th century. Bizarrely, it was deliberately partially demolished in 1775 because it was "obstructing the view from Sir Lionel Lyde's new home".
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The pretty centre of A st. L
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Grand neoclassical facade. This is one of the few photos I took of what would have been part of Lamer, Cherry's estate
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A classic camper van - and an extremely shiny and well maintained specimen. Got to be a rental!
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I had another off-road cut through that would take me to Wheathampsted - and again, there were a surprising number of people about. I spun down to cross the river Lea - a small river, but a significant one, as after crossing the Chilterns I had unbelievably crossed the miniature watershed of southern England: the Lea flows into East London and the Thames, and so empties out into the English Channel; all the rivers of Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire empty northwards, into the North Sea. 

The Lea was almost crowded with people, and I sped quickly past, almost immediately entering Wheathampsted. It's a small town, roughly the size of Potton, and within 5 minutes I had spotted the spire of St. Helens right in the centre of town. I had slight trepidations on whether I would be allowed to enter the churchyard - but the gates were clearly open, and there were a number of people inside taking their constitutional, so it didn't seem any harm to take a look inside and to see if I could find Cherry's grave.

The track leading towards Wheathampsted had been rather brutally cleared of vegetation. It did have a good surface, though.
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Entering Wheathampsted through its unremarkable outskirts, the spire of St. Helens is already visible
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In the Nabokov novel The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, the estranged and idolizing brother of the title character hears Sebastian is dying in the south of France, and spends a chaotic day and night travelling through increasingly desperate circumstances trying to reach his deathbed. He arrives just in time, and though the room is darkened and he hears nothing but laboured breathing, feels he has exchanged some spiritual contact with his late brother. A few minutes later, he asks the nurse about his last days - only to learn there was a mix-up, and his brother in fact died the day before. 

Why do I tell this story? Well, sometime similar very almost happened to me...

The churchyard contained a rather choatic assortment of graves, spanning four centuries or so. There was nothing to clearly mark out Cherry's grave.
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Interesting grave of James Marshall, who bequeathed his estate "to be held for the purpose of putting poor men's children ... apprentice to some trade". Died 1722.
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St. Helens itself is in good repair (though I've carefully hidden the scaffolding on the other side). It is really very old - while the stonework, and even part of the tower, is Norman and can be dated to the 13th century, there has been a wooden church on this site since Saxon times and no reliable origin date can be established. In this way it parallels nearby St. Albans, one of the oldest cathedrals in the country and a shrine to the first British saint, which was started in the 11th century, but which replaced an abbey built in the 8th century: that is, over 1,200 years ago.
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Finally, I spotted it: I would never have found it if I didn't have any idea of what it looked like before. It is rather neglected and untended, and there's no sign indicating where it is.
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"In loving memory of Major General Apsley Cherry-Garrard, CB".
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It was a strangely appropriate place for such an unassuming and modest man to be buried - a neglected grave, but in such a beautiful place. I was glad I'd made the trip, and felt moved as I pedalled slowly back the way I'd came through Wheathampsted.

It was only looking at these photographs later that I started to have  some doubts. Our Apsley Cherry-Garrard was in the First World War - but I didn't think he'd ever been a Major General. And it occurred to me that his father, though not born with it, at his death shared exactly the same name.

But I'd seen pictures of the grave on wikipedia and the (frankly obsessive) findagrave.com. It was certainly the same memorial - even the tree and path was in the same place. Surely they couldn't be wrong as well? But they had seen (and photographed) a different inscription, one which clearly referred to the polar explorer:

In loving memory of Apsley George Benet Cherry-Garrard of Lamer Park, Wheathampsted. Only son of Major-General Apsley Cherry-Garrard. Born 2nd January 1886 Died 18th May 1959.

What gave? It was only after studying the photos carefully, that I realised that I had been looking at the right monument. I must have been - the shape was identical, it was in the same position, even the smaller stone behind it matched up. It was just that the memorial of Apsley Cherry-Garrard, famous polar explorer, was written on the back of his father's, and I'd never seen it. What a fitting memorial for such a nice, modest man.

I like this signpost in the centre of Wheathampsted for the incredible collection of bizarre names it contains. Nomansland common? Devil's Dyke? Crinkle Crankle Walls?
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Out of Wheathampsted, I cut away from the track I'd followed in and cut east to follow the river Lea, along what may as well have been a cycle highway following the course of the old rail line towards Welwyn. It was pretty and a great off-road route, but boy was it crowded.

At first I could take a shortcut across the fields, and it was reasonably peaceful
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The trail - the "Ayot Greenway" - follows the course of the old Wheathampsted railway. There are lots of reminders of its previous status, such as rail bridges over the trail.
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Yep, it wasn't quiet
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It passed through some spectacular bluebell woods
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Incongruously, the old rail crossings are now *also* trails. This must be the only grade-separated cycle path junction I've ever crossed. I actually dramatically overshot here and had to backtrack, skittering down the rather steep bank to join the trail heading north
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The northward trail, away from nearby Welwyn and towards Knebworth, was a lot quieter
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I popped out on the Codicote road, near to where I would have picked it up if I'd gone directly from Ayot St. L. The route up through Codicote and up through the lanes to Knebworth, the old village and manor house outside the sprawling new town of Stevenage, was layed-back but not particularly memorable - save for an unfortunate occasion where I managed to follow a bridleway into an industrial estate, the other side of which was sealed off. After lugging the bike over one fence and under the surprising gap beneath another, I regained the road about 500m from where I'd left it and continued on my way.

I love how this sign is permanent. Yep, there's just always going to be mud.
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In Codicote. As usual, I took the Coward's way out
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My uninformed architectural opinion: if you need a steel frame for your house, it's already too big.
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Looking back to Codicote from the surprisingly steep little hill following
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Passing this cycle cafe, sadly closed at the moment
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Inside the odd rural industrial estate I inadvertently got myself trapped in. I'm not really sure what this big sand pit's for - something to do with horses?
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Knebworth is a very plush little village, and houses Knebworth hall, which has become since the 1960s a famous concert venue - concerts of note include the Rolling Stones in 1976, and Oasis in 1996. I mentioned the latter since I know a man who played on that same stage that day, supporting them, in later years became my mum's lodger and lived in what was previously my childhood bedroom.

This is a lovely pub, and one we had visited on works outings
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Nice chimneys
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I hope you enjoyed those last photographs of pastoral quaintness - because I was about to re-cross the A1(M) and enter Stevenage, and the background would rather starkly change.

Crossing under the motorway into Stevenage. Abandon hope all ye etc.
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Then under the east coat rail line
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Stevenage was one of the first of the crop of new towns built in the countryside north of London from the 1940s to the 1960s. These were designed to provide decent housing stock to replace venerable slum conditions that still prevailed in the east end of London, and, after the second world war, to replace those lost to bombing. Following Letchworth, Welwyn (Garden City), Harlow, Hatfield and Hemel Hempstead were constructed, generally named after a tiny core of the original old village. 

The towns were planned, zoned and constructed in a short time - a novelty in England. As you can imagine, this did not go down well with the residents of the small existing villages: in Stevenage, the residents changed signs to read "Silkingrad", after Lewis Silkin, the minister in charge. Letchworth and Milton Keynes had met with great success - residents were amazed at the modernity of their new accommodation, compared with the older housing stock which generally would have had no heating or internal running water. But after the war, the need for new housing increased in urgency, and a new factor came into play: the accessibility of the motor car, and the drive to make them as driver-friendly as possible.

Stevenage is very much a product of this era. The whole town is build on a grid of dual carriageways, with every junction a massive 500m wide roundabout. In a forward thinking gesture, there is a network of cycleways completely separated from this. However, unless you're a local it's rather difficult to find these and, more importantly (since they continually have to burrow under the carriageways and cross inside the roundabouts) figure out where on earth they go. As a consequence, the town is remarkably pedestrian unfriendly. It's a common sight to see a man in a suit trying to vault the central reservation of a dual-carriageway, trying to get to the other side which he can see but to which there is no obvious route.

Nominally, my day job is based in Stevenage, and I've grown quite familiar with the town. On many measures, it's a great success: the town is crammed with high-tech industry, from pharmaceuticals to aerospace, offering well-paying jobs (it's even been described as the centre of the UK space industry). But that same accessibility to the car has meant that it's all too easy, if you work in Stevenage, to avoid living there. I can get into the centre of Stevenage from the A1 in about 5 minutes; it might take over an hour to do the same in Cambridge.

And as a consequence of its poor aesthetics, especially compared to the villages around, many people in my position choose to do just that. In turn, this has meant the new town centre has become run down, almost to the point of abandonment: with boarded up shops and not much to draw outsiders in. As an illustration: my boss has worked in Stevenage for over 15 years, and has never been into the new town.

Things are looking up: the new town is being revamped (and partially demolished), and houses are growing in demand there are a commuter base for London, due to the fast rail link. But Stevenage remains a bit of an urban planning puzzle.

First I cut over the south side of the big industrial swathe, a good chunk of which is occupied by GSK's medicine research centre - pictured is one of their pilot plants. I need to visit this for work quite often.
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Stevenage FC is surprisingly able and has a strong local following
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Typical Stevenage architecture
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This is very characteristic of the layout in the centre of the town: the arterial roads and joined by enormous roundabouts
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To cross them, you need to descend to an extensive, but frankly confusing, network of footpaths and cycleways that run through the middle
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The train station
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I have heard these underpasses described as "a mugger's playground". It's not actually too bad, though I might avoid it on my own in the middle of the night...
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Stevenage is pretty big, and I had a bit of a 6km slog to clear the industrial zone and new town. And then suddenly I popped out in Old Stevenage - the original village, some of which is intact. The contrast is pretty striking.

Old Stevenage village green. Our office is just around the corner from here - closed at the moment.
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There are some nice shops all around the old town - it's still a much better place to go out for the evening, or go shopping, than the enormous malls of the new town.
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Banner honouring key workers as we leave Stevenage
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Pretty fatigued now, I followed the signed cycleway out of Stevenage, following the still traffic-clogged main road up to the big junction with the A1. I crossed over, and picked up the route running parallel over the fields up back up towards Letchworth. My plan this time was to skirt Letchworth to the south, cut into Baldock, from which I could pick up the road to Ashwell and home.

A Red Kite, bottom, being harried by a smaller bird near the A1. Though red kites are huge and eagle-like in appearance, they are in fact dedicated scavengers, and so often hang around roads waiting for roadkill. This doesn't stop the smaller birds attacking them to try to drive them off, as they would other birds of prey.
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The back route into Letchworth. I was pretty glad to be out of Stevenage and away from the big roads.
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Skirting Letchworth through the very trim village of Willian.
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Some very neat thatch
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On the northern side of Letchworth is the community allotments. These are small parcels of land which can be hired to practice growing fruit, vegetables and flowers. They are notorious for being highly sought-after - I think many allotments have a waiting list of years!
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Big pylon crossing between Letchworth and Baldock
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Crossing under the A1 for the fourth, and final, time
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An Easter bunny! Rabbits are ten-a-penny around here - often I'll see dozens of them every time I go out.
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Spire in Baldock
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Very fatigued now, I realised that I'd saved a series of climbs and rolling hills on the border of Bedfordshire until last. My route was the most direct now - no more off-roading, I was going to climb directly back to Bygrave and thence to Ashwell. My computer read 95km now, I was moving slowly and had to stop twice to refuel on chocolate bars.

Farm outside Baldock. This used to be a really impressive metal sculpture of a vulture, but its head's got damaged and is dangling off, giving it a really macabre appearance.
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The low sun gave strange light effects on the deeply furrowed fields
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Give me no more than / my own shadow on the road / here comes the night
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Looking back down towards Baldock from the hills. I really like the different green/yellow halves of this picture.
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I didn't investigate this "Slurry Mate" too closely
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Two strange factories can be seen in this view over the hills. On the left is a "whiting works" - I have no idea what this is, except there are often suspicious patches of white on the roads around it. On the very far right in the distance is the Johnson Matthey factory at Royston, where they do all sorts of inorganic chemistry including manufacturing catalysts.
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The spire at Ashwell poking over the hill and looking beautiful in the low light was a sight for sore eyes. Behind it can be seen the Potton water tower, some 15km north.
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Since it was quiet, I thought I'd get a few shots of Ashwell, since it really is a very pretty place and I keep mentioning it without actually going through. It's about the same size as Potton, and is just a touch more fancy. It was deserted when I passed through.

Ashwell high street
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Some curious houses in Ashwell
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The enormous spire of St. Mary's is visible everywhere in the village
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They even have thatched walls!
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Now this is a *fantastic* location for a pub. Wouldn't get much better than sitting outside here as the sun goes down with a nice drink, after a bike ride.
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Yeah, yeah, we get it Ashwell, you're picturesque.
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I keep thinking I've touched this photo up to colourize it, but in fact this just the magic quality of the early evening light
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I was back on familiar ground now, retracing my steps up the backroad towards Potton, via Eyeworth and Sutton. I was fighting the northerly wind a little now, and making slow progress. When I got to Sutton with 110km on the clock, instead of going through the ford I elected to take the "main" road directly back to Potton.

I mostly took this just to verify that I do, in fact, live surrounded by villages with funny names
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This is what I think of as the "main" road into Potton. The autobahn it is not.
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Eggs for sale in Potton
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And it was with relief that I flopped into our home street, which is currently a mass of roadworks as they dig up the water main
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Today's ride: 113 km (70 miles)
Total: 887 km (551 miles)

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Susan CarpenterWhat a wonderful story about Cherry and your quest to find his grave. "Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" was a seductive theory - I did not realize that lives were lost in vain efforts to prove the hypothesis.
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