Madam, I present your husband: (Bletchingdon - Milton Keynes) - When we were two little boys - CycleBlaze

May 9, 2012

Madam, I present your husband: (Bletchingdon - Milton Keynes)

Heading for home
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PETER AT the bed-and-breakfast the other night was asking just how vigorous was this cycle-touring business. I said it was what you wanted of it, that everything was choice. In our case, we were out to set no records. Plenty of people had gone further and no doubt we could have as well. But that wasn't the point. We rode for a couple of hours and then we stopped for coffee.

"It's not pushing back the limits of human endeavour," I confessed.

He smiled gently.

"That sounds about right for me," he said.

This morning the two hours had passed when we tried the doors of the first pub. They were closed. Signs said they should have been open, that as well as a drink we could order an all-day breakfast or stay the night or book a marquee and hold a party. A British and an Irish flag flew from neighbouring poles beside the road. This was a pub trying hard for business. But the door was shut.

We resigned ourselves to coming closer to those limits of endeavour and walked back to the bikes. At which point a portly gent waved from the window and met us at the back door.

"Sorry, boys," he half-spoke, half-breathed in an Irish accent. "Bit of a heavy night last night. Jes' gettin' goin' here. But you're all right. She'll have the front door open fa' yer b'now."

We walked round to the front. A dark-haired woman with trousers and sweater a little smaller than what they contained looked at us with a smile and through eyes in which a healthy dose of make-up didn't hide the tiredness.

"Late night?"

"Open-moik session," she said, her accent equally heavy. "Bit late awpnin' this mornin'."

Two little boys, 50 years later
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Open-mike sessions were for anyone with the nerve to force his talent on others. They always reminded me of a comment by Garrison Keillor, I think it was, that many have the talent to sing, although not as many as think so.

"Y'remember that band, Mud?" she asked.

We said we did. They were part of a fashion for groups with single-syllable names. Glam-rock, I think they called them, lots of eccentric outfits and odd hair cuts. When Young People overdosed on that, they turned gratefully to punk and stuck safety pins through their ear.

"Well, we had the lead singer singing here last night," she said. "Pretty good he was, too."

I didn't say anything but something seemed wrong. I looked them up later and it turned out the lead singer had died in Portugal seven years ago, by which time the band had long disbanded. So someone else had been up there. But whose grip on fame could be so slight that he'd claim to be the lead singer of a band most of us have been glad to forget?

No matter, though. We got our coffee and our host told us she wasn't planning to stay in the pub business anyway.

"I'm only doing it to stand in for my brother," she explained. "He's sick. I've never been in the business before. Never want to be in it again, either. It's nothing but work from morning to night"...she was cleaning the tables with a blue cloth and spray-on disinfectant as she spoke... "an' the money doesn't justify it."

"And your brother?"

"He wants to get out, too. The pub's up for sale. We only keep it open to sell it as a going concern. But what can you do when there are 10 other pubs within spitting distance also going for sale?"

She attacked another table.

Until now the day had been flat. We rode in an arc round Otmoor, the single road half-enclosing a large area of green nothingness that was a delight to water birds, then reached this pub on the edge of our next and last range of hills.

The Chilterns run in a curve around the west and north of London, from the Thames at dignified Maidenhead and its raucous neighbour of Slough round to about one o'clock where they level out around where I saw that white lion carved into the hillside at Whipsnade.

I didn't show you that lion last time, so here it is now
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Like the Cotswolds, the hills repeat themselves, although here they're neither as high nor as steep. The worst was the rise to Brill, with its wooden windmill hidden by trees and, beyond it, the once notorious Leatherslade farm. It was there in 1963 that a band of petty London crooks stashed the loot after holding up a mail train loaded with bank notes, by changing the colours of an electric signal above a bridge. With admirable attention to detail, British Railways then moved the signal so that it couldn't happen again.

The robbers got away with close on £3 million, an unbelievable sum in those days, and hid it and themselves at this farm. They were betrayed by a small boy collecting the numbers of passing cars, as small boys did at the time. The police asked to see his book and spotted a car registered in London. To travel so far was a rarity in those days and it didn't take long to find who owned the car and round up likely suspects for questioning.

The robbers left in such a hurry that they scattered heaps of uncollected money behind them. I went back on the 30th anniversary to make a short piece for the BBC. The man who lives there now wouldn't see me. Nor anybody. I had a polite but shouted conversation from the public field path that runs beside the farm and at least had the presence of mind to keep my tape machine running.

Brill passed in light rain and every village thereafter in slightly heavier rain. I pushed Mike into buying a Mars bar to stave off his another experience with hunger knock and learned from the South African shopowners that Johannesburg and Pretoria, which had lengthy countryside between them when I was there, had grown into one big sprawl.

"Itz all bin rrroond," the man said. Absolutely ruined.

We passed the sign welcoming us back to the city of law-breakers and rounded the final corner to Mike's house. Geneviève was there to greet us, visibly happier at the return of her husband than when I had taken him away nine days earlier.

I am writing this while Mike has a celebratory snore on the armchair beside me.


The other Little Boy recounts:

The final leg of our ride took us back through the Oxfordshire countryside, but again we had to endure a wet ride. Nevertheless, the countryside can be appreciated no matter what the weather, provided you are suitably attired to keep the worst of it at bay.

About halfway along the route we rejoined the route we followed on the way to Abingdon on the first leg, and a nice final step was to stop at Rosie's Bar in Winslow for lunch, the stop we made for coffee on the way to Abingdon.

Winslow, where we looped the loop
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To be honest, after that I just wanted the journey to end. There comes a moment when the homing instinct takes over. This was it.

My objective was achieved. I made it round, all 800km of it. Léo's objective was also achieved; he was able to undertake the 1962 ride with the same person he did all those years ago. For him the ride was a stroll in the park, for me a marathon effort. But, it was a reminder to me of what I have missed in 50 years in which the bicycle formed no part of my life at all, until recently.

I will not repeat such a long trip, but I will continue to use my bike around Milton Keynes and I am buying another bike for my home in France, and I will use that too. Also, it was great to spend time with an old friend. Léo is excellent company.

However, for me the real heroes in this story are two 15-year-old boys who, without much preparation or training, jumped on their bikes and successfully completed this trip round the south and south-west of England in 1962 without a mobile phone in sight, or e-mails or blogs or Twitters or any of the technological stuff that we clutter our lives with today. Our parents seemed unconcerned about our safety, and I don't think we called them much. The roads were much less busy then, of course, and we took the very minor roads as we did this time.

Unfortunately for me, I discovered after I got back that I had acquired an unpleasant infection that required medical treatment. This was one of those problems that accompanies the ageing process and occurs if your system is not sufficiently flushed out all the time. So, I had not been drinking enough, probably on the final leg of the journey! I'm not 15 any more.

Happy Days

Today's ride: 75 km (47 miles)
Total: 1,765 km (1,096 miles)

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