What’s this about?

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My plan is to write about the people, places and adventures that have inspired me over sixty odd years.  Mostly it’s just a way for me to recall and record the fun, excitement and times spent in good company, together with some of the pratfalls along the way, but if it makes you smile, so much the better.

Safety Video

The Rousdon ‘in-house-team’ have been involved in some challenging endeavours.  On one occasion a helicopter was needed…

…and that didn’t work out too well; so in the hope of keeping our highly valued, hard working and skilful residents safe, both at work and at play, we’ve compiled a safety brief…

Shoals of Herring

drifterA lot of songs about the sea have lyrics that tell a story and Shoals of Herring is one such song.  When I first sang it with the Jurassix shanty group it reminded me of a geography lesson (could’ve been history) back when I was a lad.  The east coast fishing industry was already in decline; people were losing their taste for salted herring, in favour of Cap’n Birdseye fish-fingers.  But iFMIB_48878_Herring_Fishing_Season,_Yarmouthn the late 19th, early 20th century, Great Yarmouth catered for a thousand drifters (fishing boats), ten thousand fisherman and five thousand fisher-girls (mainly responsible for the gutting and preserving the ‘silver darlings’).  Many of these workers and boats were Scottish and just there for the season.

0ag200aaThe song mentions ‘a hundred cran of the silver darlings’.  A cran is thirty-seven and a half imperial gallons and the fisherman on the left is loading a creel basket that would hold roughly a quarter cran of fish.  Herring fishing was hard dangerous work; a fact conveyed in the lyrics of Ewan MacColl’s evocative song.

Anyway, to the song.  Some while ago I rewrote the lyrics and recorded ‘Shoals of Pouting’ about a seasick grockle on a day charter out of Lyme Bay.  I feel guilty about this, but not guilty enough to delete it.  Never mind, this is my version of the proper song, which, if I can get the technology to work, will be replaced in due course by the Jurassix shanty version…

The Well

The well

It’s Halloween again and as usual it is unsettling me more than somewhat.  Although the events that I am about to relate happened forty odd years ago, the horror of them haunts me to this day.  I’ve kept this to myself for all these years; maybe sharing it now will enable me to find some closure.

Back in the day, the telephone company was awash with managers who got to be in charge because they’d been around a long time.  All they wanted was a quiet life; they did no more than they had to do and then went home.  A management team with this level of motivation was unlikely to inspire their workforce and working in this environment was an unfulfilling experience.  Luckily though, very occasionally, a manager with drive would come along; Doug was in this category.

When I met Doug I’d been working in a planning office for a couple of years; I missed field work, but the only hope of promotion was in an office, so I grudgingly stuck it out.  By now my once calloused workman’s hands had returned to those of a choirboy, my motivation was at rock-bottom and I needed a firm kick-up-the-arse; Doug was happy to oblige.  He drove me like a (I’m stuck for PC words here, but you know what I mean).  And, luckily enough, I hadn’t spent so long in a torpor that I wasn’t able to respond to some useful ‘counselling’ and come to realise that the alternative to laziness and endlessly long days could be engagement and fulfilment.  Suffice it to say that once flinty-eyed Doug had kicked me into shape, we got along fine.

Although I didn’t know much about Doug, what I did know was that he enjoyed a pint in his local.  We were chatting over a coffee one day and he put a proposition to me.  Doug said that the landlord of his local was in the process of building an extension and a few days ago they had uncovered a deep well.  This well had been covered by a concrete patio, and was only unearthed because they needed to break the patio up to install footings for the extension.  They knew the well was deep, because when they threw rocks down it, it took some while before they heard bonk, bonk splosh.  The ‘bonk, bonk’ indicated that there was some kind of obstruction somewhere near the bottom of the well and the ‘splosh’, yep you guessed it, water!  Doug became very enthusiastic as he told me that the landlord and the locals were mightily intrigued by this find and were hoping for an opportunity to discover if the well held some treasures.  I guess it was a reasonable thought; people must have thrown all kinds of things down old wells.  Anyway, Doug knew that I scuba-dived, so his proposal was that I’d strap on the gear, they’d tie a rope around me and lower me down.

At this point I must ask you to consider my position; I was in my early twenties with the possibility of a successful career stretching out in front of me and my guv’nor was asking me for a favour, so without any consideration for personal safety, while my brain was thinking “here’s a chance to ingratiate myself with the boss”, my mouth said “what’s in it for me?”.  Anyway, Doug replied with “free beer, and, if you’re lucky, pie and chips”.  “Done” said I.  And I had been!

Luckily though, Doug wasn’t quite so gung-ho.  The next day he came to work via the phone company stores (he once managed proper ‘hairy-arsed’ engineers, so he had all the right contacts) with a miners’ safety lamp, overalls and a hard hat.  He explained that as the well was just “another bloody-great hole in the ground”, it could collect gas or foul air, so to be safe, we ought to test it with the Davy-lamp before venturing down, especially as we’d worked out that lowering me in with full diving kit would be too heavy and probably prevent me from negotiating the obstructions, therefore I would be breathing ‘well air’ on the way down.  And the hard hat; obviously to protect me from the rocks accidentally kicked down the well by the inevitable drunk(s) staggering about above.

After a couple of days, Doug also hatched a safer plan to get me down to the water.  The landlord had asked his regulars to supply ladders, so now the plan was to tie a load of ladders together and lower them into the well as far as the obstruction, hoping that I would be able to negotiate whatever it was that was causing the obstruction and manoeuvre my way into the water.  Doug was confident that all this would be in place by the time that I arrived on the evening of the 31st October… Halloween!

I wasn’t exactly getting cold feet, but I was feeling in need of reliable back up.  Pete Two (you may read about Pete One and Pete Three elsewhere, but in an effort to safeguard his identity this Pete is to be known as Pete Two) was an obvious choice.  Pete Two had one of the best senses of humour I’ve come across – ever; and my god could that boy drink.  So, I explained the need for a backup diver and Doug confirmed that if the landlord wouldn’t settle the bar bill, for all this fun, then he certainly would.  Game on!

It was getting dark by the time we arrived, with our wives at the pub.  The locals had the drinking element of the adventure well in hand and there was an air of anticipation.  The landlord offered us a pint, but the rule is that you don’t drink and dive, so we declined the offer, pointing out that we would more than make up for it later.

We checked out the preparation.  Give Doug and the landlord their due, it was all there.  The ladders disappeared into the gloom, there was a bucket with holes drilled in it for collecting the spoils and plenty of rope for lowering the aqualung, bucket and a safety rope for the diver.

Four of us stood atop the well.  Although it was forty years ago, I can remember this as if it were yesterday.  My wife Glenys was standing next to me, and just a few feet away, on the other side of the well stood Pete and Geraldine.  We were all staring down as I shone a powerful underwater torch into the hole.  The torchlight penetrated no more than six feet or so and I was slightly unnerved that the well was full of mist, but it had been a mild October day and now that the temperature had dropped, it seemed reasonable that a mist would form, especially in low lying areas… and this was certainly low lying.  The plan was that we’d lower the Davy lamp into the well on a pre-marked length of polypropylene line that Doug had also liberated from the stores.  Doug and the landlord had worked out the length of line needed based on the number of ladders that were lashed together.  As I held the torch, with Pete, Geraldine and Glen watching, Doug appeared from the gloom with the lighted lamp.  He lowered the lamp down to the mark, made the rope off to the top rung of the ladder and then returned to the pub to finish his pint in the warm, leaving the four of us with our thoughts.  The plan was that we’d leave the lamp for a few minutes and then haul it back up.  If the lamp was still alight, then the air was good and we could dive in relative safety.

As I turned away from the well, I thought I noticed a slight swirling in the mist and at the same time, Glen gasped and took a big step back from the hole… “did you see that?”.  Her voice was a strained whisper.  “See what?” I responded, somewhat taken aback.  “I’m sure I saw a face, there was a swirl of mist and for a second these hollow eyes stared back at me… I’m certain I saw something, you can’t go down there Graham… you can’t”.  I laughed… “nice one Glen, you got us going for a minute with that one… “.  Glen didn’t look at all amused and Pete wasn’t looking too happy either.

Personally, at that time I had absolutely no belief in the paranormal so as far as I was concerned, what my wife had observed was just a trick of the mist in the torchlight… absolutely nothing to worry about.  However, at this point the pub landlord put in another appearance and once again offered us a ‘stiffener’ before we ventured forth.  I looked at Pete and the four of us said in unison “yes please”.

I still couldn’t be certain if Glen was just winding us up, but one thing I did know was that she never ever touched spirits, so I was a bit alarmed when she asked for a double brandy.

Pete and I knew that only the first person into the well would be able to see anything, because as soon as someone touched bottom, the silt debris would reduce visibility to zero.  Our agreement was that as it would be great to actually see what the underwater vista looked like before disturbing the silt, we would toss a coin for the honour of who went first.  Things had changed though.  Pete was staring at Glen as Glen sat quietly in the corner gently shuddering and taking gulps from her large brandy.  She’d definitely seen something, and while I was certain that it was just a trick of the light, I was equally certain that Pete didn’t see it that way at all.  At this point I need to explain something about Pete.

Pete was a strapping lad and at over six feet tall and built like a brick outhouse, he was well able to look after himself.  And, added to this Pete boxed and had the scars to prove it.  Bear in mind that as a couple of likely lads in our early twenties, on a good night out, we had on occasions come up against some dodgy characters.  On one occasion Pete parked his Cortina outside a Chinese takeaway and I jumped out to sort out the order.  I was into the premises before I’d noticed the three skinheads waiting impatiently for their grub.  These lads were being rude to the chap behind the counter and when I came through the door, all flowing locks down to my shoulders and flared trousers, their attention turned fairly rapidly to me.

Parked outside, Pete must have seen what was about to happen and quick as a flash he was out of the car and through the restaurant door with a big grin on his face.  He stepped in front of me and turned to the direction of aggravation… “hello lads, how’s it going then?”  I looked gingerly out from behind my big mate.  The mouthy leader had stopped walking forward and looked a bit uncertain.  Pete pressed on “ok lads, this is how it’s going to play out, you three are going to wait patiently for your “chinky” [colloquialism, perfectly acceptable to the Chinese person serving us forty odd years ago] and then you’ll go home and enjoy your grub… deal?”  The three of them sat down.  My point is that Pete was bloody fearless.  Whereas I needed a change of underwear, my mate couldn’t have cared less if a fight had broken out; his only disappointment would have been that there was only three of them!  Having said all this however, Pete was also the biggest ‘scaredy-cat’ I had ever met.

The four of us were great mates, to the extent that we actually went on holiday together.  On one occasion we’d hired a cruiser on the Norfolk Broads.  It was a big old boat with a lot of timbered features and in the half-light, it was easy to imagine that you were on an old galleon; and Pete had a vivid imagination.

The ‘facilities’ were of the pump-out variety.  The bloke in the boatyard said that the holding tank was more than big enough for four of us for a week, so there was no need to get the toilet emptied; clearly though he had no notion of the amount of beer that was about to be consumed.  Anyway, it was agreed that where possible Pete and I would pee over the side, so as to avoid filling the bog too quickly.  On this particular evening we had decided to get the beers in, moor up in the ‘wilds’, do our own cooking and then play scrabble (Geraldine reckoned she was good at scrabble; we reckoned she was bloody cheating!).  Anyway, while the girls sipped delicately on glasses of Chardonnay, Pete and I shovelled the beer down like our lives depended on it.  When necessary, I’d take a trip to the rail and when Pete needed to go he’d use the ‘ladies’ toilet.  After several trips I retorted “oi Pete, where do you think you’re going?  Go outside mate!”  Pete glared at me and went in the ladies.  Once he was out of earshot, Geraldine explained that her brave husband was, in fact, scared of the dark.  Oh boy was I going to have some fun!

I’d been reading a book called ‘Ghosts of the Norfolk Broads’, so when Pete came back in, I started to recount one of the short stories.  He didn’t want to hear.  Part of the problem was that a slight breeze had got up and this was causing the boat to rock on its moorings which in turn caused a ghostly creaking sound as rope strained against bollard.  Coupled with this, as each gust of wind blew, the ornately panelled doors would ease open slightly against their catches; Pete had his back to the doors, so he couldn’t see this.  “What’s up Pete old mate? you look a bit uneasy”.  “Nothing, nothing at all, now come on you lot concentrate on the game”.  The doors eased, the ropes creaked… “crikey mate, this is a spooky old boat isn’t it?  With all this creaking and tapping going on, I’m half expecting the headless ghost of Blackbeard to burst in through those doors”.  Pete couldn’t help himself and he looked over his shoulder just as a strong gust of wind lifted the catches and blew the door open.  Pete let out a blood curdling scream as he leapt to his feet knocking all the scrabble paraphernalia onto the floor.  The three of us nearly wet ourselves laughing; not quite true, I actually did wet myself… I should’ve gone to the rail before winding up poor old Pete.

Back to the plot.  You can see my predicament.  I knew that there was no way that Pete was going to face whatever it was that had frightened Glen and so I needed to apply some psychology.

“OK Pete, I know I said we’d toss a coin to decide who goes first, but let’s face it mate, you’re a big fxxxxr and as you’re always pointing out to me, I’m a short-arse, so, if there is an obstruction down there we don’t want to risk you getting stuck, so why don’t I go first?  After all, they’ll be sod-all to see down there anyway”.  “Mmmm…” Pete took his time “…s’pose you’ve got a point” …he paused some more… “OK then, I’ll man the rope topside”.  Then Glen said “you’re not actually going down there are you?  You must be crazy”.  And I replied “look around you; these locals are half drunk and they are expecting some kind of show.  The way I see it is that I either go down the well of my own accord, or this lot are going to throw me down there”.  Glen could see the logic of the argument and took another large gulp of brandy… “you’d better get me another one of these then!”.

Glen armed herself with another double and the four of us went outside.  We recovered the Davy-lamp which sadly was still alight and then Pete and I changed into wetsuits, donned the overalls and hard hats and then readied the aqualungs.

Pete lowered my kit down to the obstruction, Geraldine lowered the bucket and I clambered onto the ladder.  It was a long way down.  I held my torch so that it pointed down into the gloom, but I avoided looking down to where it shone.  I worked my way carefully down and down.

By the time I’d reached the first obstruction I was bloody terrified.  My mind was in a turmoil; what had Glen seen?  Was it real?  Had I married an alcoholic?  The first obstruction was a huge wooden beam that went from side to side across the well.  Shining the torch down I could see that the aqualung was resting on a second beam roughly three feet below, with the handle of the bucket caught around the first stage of the demand valve.

I looked up and saw the ladder disappearing up into a foggy yellow mist, lit by the torchlight shining down from above.  I shouted up… “Pete, I’m standing on a beam – give me some rope”.   My voice had a muffled dead sound to it, but Pete’s “OK mate” sounded like an ethereal whisper; I was spooked!  Nevertheless, Pete payed out more rope and I clambered down to my diving kit.  “OK mate, I’ve reached the kit; take its weight and I’ll get it clear”.  Pete pulled on the rope that was securing the aqualung and lifted it clear of the second beam.  I pulled the kit sideways, clear of the beam and then shouted back to my support diver to lower away.  I shone the torch down to the limpid water below as the aqualung touched the surface.  “OK mate – hold it there”.  I sat on the lower beam, with my legs dangling in the water, then I spat in my diving mask, rinsed it in the water to stop it from misting up and then fitted the mask to my face.  I tucked the aqualung under my arm and shouted up to Pete “OK mate, I’m going in, give me slack on the ropes”.  I felt the bowline loop around me slacken and I took the weight of the dive kit as Pete gave me more rope.  With one final glance into the mist above, I stuffed the demand valve into my mouth and slid off of the beam into the water.

The well water was crystal clear.  I could see the shape of the chamber; it was onion shaped, cut into the chalk away from the well shaft.  I had decided in advance that if I was the first to venture into this hole, I would take plenty of time to orientate myself before disturbing the visibility.  Also, as I was stressed, my breathing was erratic, so I needed time to sort myself out before venturing down.  I estimated the depth at no more than ten feet to the silt.  Looking down from just under the surface, there were no specific features of note, apart from a slight hollow in one place where the curve of the chamber reached the silt.

After a while my breathing settled.  For me the underwater world, be it in lake, sea or river held no fears, only adventure and now I could add well-diving to the list.  Common sense and excitement were starting to reassert themselves and fear began to abate.  I resurfaced… “Geraldine – let the bucket go”.  The rope on the bucket slackened, I tipped the bucket off of the beam and then ducked under again to watch the bucket settle in a cloud of silt.  Then the work started.

Topsides we had a system.  Pete managed the aqualung and diver rope when I was working below and I did likewise for him.  Glen and Geraldine took it in turns to manage the bucket and sort through the debris.  And we had a signalling system.  Once the bucket was full, steady pulls from the diver on the bucket rope would result in the bucket being pulled up, emptied and then returned as far as the first obstruction.  Two pulls on the diver rope from above signalled “are you OK?” and two pulls from below signalled “yes”.  Continuous rapid pulls on the diver rope indicated that everything was far from OK!

What followed was for the most part straightforward.  By the time Pete took his turn underwater he could see nothing; the job was done through touch alone.  Indeed, once I’d taken the first scoop of debris from the bottom the visibility instantly turned to zero.

We had been at it for about an hour and the system was working well.  During one of my stints I felt something longish with knobbly ends.  I stuffed it in the bucket and carried on working.  Once the bucket was full I signalled for it to be taken up and decided to take a break myself, so once the bucket was clear I started on up the ladder.

As my head cleared the edge of the well-head, the first thing I saw was Doug with a bone; he had a quizzical look on his face.  When Doug saw me, he said “look what you’ve found; an animal bone – too big for a sheep, must be a cow I guess”.  I’m no forensic anthropologist, but it looked human enough to me.

Pete didn’t see or hear any of this as he’d gone for a pee (I’d specifically instructed him not to piss in his wetsuit).  Doug secreted the bone away and placed it in a plastic carrier bag.  As the girls sifted through the mud and debris, several more bits and pieces came to light.  Doug kept on referring to bovine body parts and I kept on recognising fingers and toes.  Pete was down the well, grafting away, sending the bucket up at regular intervals.  Whenever a bone appeared, Doug took it away.

When Pete appeared at the top of the ladder he said that he’d had enough.  We had cleared most of the well-bed of debris, so my next trip down was to be my last.

Back at the bottom, I was scrabbling about with the bucket; there wasn’t much left.  But, as my hand shuffled along the edge, it came to the indentation that I had seen before the visibility turned to zero.  As my hand rummaged about, the bed of the well gave way to reveal a small tunnel.  The tunnel was too small to get much more than my hand through, but as I tried to clear what I thought was rock away to enlarge the hole a lump came away in my hand.  I cleared the mud away from what felt like some sort of curved symmetrical object, which I then placed on top of the rest of the debris in the bucket.  I signalled steadily on the bucket line and it was whisked away.

I sat back and waited.  The first pull on the diver rope jogged me from my respite; the continuous hard steady pulls shook me into action.  I surfaced, spat out the demand valve and shouted up… “OK, OK, I’m coming, what’s the rush?”.  The next voice I heard was Doug’s… “Graham, get up here NOW!”.

It took me a couple of minutes to climb the ladder.  When I got to the surface, Doug was holding a human pelvis.

The landlord was beside himself.  “What am I going to do; the building inspector is coming on Wednesday and I need my builders to get this lot capped before he arrives.  My business depends on getting the restaurant open for the summer… oh god, the police, the bad publicity, the newspaper headlines… I’m finished”.

At that time, some forty years ago, the phone company didn’t send people on management courses, so none of them had even heard of ‘action centred leadership’.  Luckily though, some people have an innate knack of managing the task, team and individual.  Doug flew into action…

He barked at the landlord “shut the xxxx up!  Take the girls into the bar and make them a cup of tea”.  Doug grabbed the landlord by the shoulders and shoved him back towards the pub.  Then he walked over to Glen and Geraldine gently put his arms around their shoulders and shepherded them away.  As he did so he prised the brandy glass from glens shaking hand and threw the contents down the well.  I stood rooted to the top of the ladder, staring at Pete, who was staring back at me with eyes the size of saucers.  Glen told me afterwards that Doug had pressed on with the animal bones theory, reasoning that everyone was tired and overwrought and not thinking or even seeing clearly.

When Doug returned to the well-head he was clutching the bag of bones.  He reached out and handed them to me.  Having seen it many times before, I recognised the ‘you are going to do what I tell you and you are going to do it now’ look so I took the bag from him.  “Now then Graham, you are going back down the ladder and you are going to put these bones back where you found them.  In the week, the builders will cap the well and none of us will ever refer to this night again… understood?”.  I nodded.

Through the laboured descent, I felt no fear.  I was physically and emotionally drained.

I took the bag of bones to the hole that I had uncovered with the intention of placing them safely into the cavity.  Before doing so I reached into the hole and had one final feel about; who knows, money, jewellery, gold watch?  My hand rested on something roundish.

By now I was very tired, but in what a psychiatrist would describe as ‘a high state of arousal’, so I guess what happened next could have been some kind of hallucination; that’s how I’ve tried to reconcile it to myself anyway.  But, from where I was, kneeling with my arm outstretched into an unseen hole, breathing rapidly through my demand valve, I swear that something wrapped itself around my wrist and dragged me into the hole, up to my armpit.

I recoiled in horror, gasped and spat out my demand valve.  As I pushed backwards my outstretched hand slipped along the spherical object, turning it as my fingers slipped into it.

I shot to the surface like a missile, banging my head on the low beam.  As I gasped for air, my hand came out of the water with the human skull.  My ring and forefinger were stuffed into the eye sockets and my thumb was through the nose hole.  I screamed, dropped the skull and clung onto the beam panting.

Somehow Doug had convinced the others that the bones were from an animal.  Only I had seen the skull and this has been my problem.  You see, I never told anyone.  Doug was waiting for me as I reached the top of the ladder.  He saw the horror on my face, but as I opened my mouth to speak, he fixed me with those flinty grey eyes and put his finger to his lips.  An understanding flashed between us and until today, nothing more was said.

And of the expected treasures, what did we actually find…

winky lamp

…yep, nothing but a wee willy winkie lamp, not dissimilar to the one in the picture.  Oh, and one new penny, probably tossed in by one of the locals.  The landlord kept the lamp and Doug tossed the coin back down the well.

I had hoped that telling this story would finally lay the ghost to rest, but to be honest I’m no more settled about my actions.  Who was it? Were they murdered? Was it a dreadful accident?  I’ll never know.

There is an island, it’s only just an island, you can drive onto it without even noticing that you are leaving the mainland.  Nevertheless, an island it is.  And on this island stands a Victorian pub.  Today, a casual visitor can enjoy a well-kept pint and good food, totally unaware of the dark secret that lurks beneath them.  So if you should venture onto such an island and stop for refreshment at a comfortable Victorian pub, take a look about you.  If you spy a dusty shelf and see, lurking towards the back of it a chipped enamelled winkie lamp, then spare a thought for the lonely soul resting in a watery grave beneath your feet.

If this story has affected you in any way.  Or, maybe you’ve identified the pub.  Or, then again, maybe you are just a well-wisher.  Either way, do please let me know…

Shoals of Pouting

We went to a Bob Fox concert (Songman from War Horse) the other day, with our good friends Mick and Sylvia.  It was an intimate little affair in Colyford village hall, with a small but appreciative audience and we were thoroughly entertained for a couple of hours with both song and humorous anecdote.

Anyway, Bob Fox opened his set with ‘Shoals of Herring’; an evocative folk song about a bygone industry.  This song has been covered lots of times in various styles and with varying lyrics.  The Bob Fox version is superb and there are some other beautiful cover versions on YouTube; sadly, this isn’t one of them…

 

The Bike Ride

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Background

Our first impression on entering the grounds of the Victorian estate at Rousdon East Devon could best be described as spellbound tinged with disbelief.  Glenys and I had spent the best part of a year looking for that elusive mix of peace, quiet and tranquillity and until that day in late summer 2009, we had not even got close to achieving our aim.  Even before setting eyes on the quirky Engine House, a visit to the estates private piece of Jurassic coastline sealed our fate.  It was a sunny day and the only other sign of life was a solitary seal and a pair of buzzards; Glen said “have you seen any fossils?”  My reply “Just the one” which I admit was a cheap shot, elicited a whack.

Strangely though, despite its benefits Rousdon had a detrimental effect on my ability for rational thought.  The decision to build a multipurpose bicycle and keep it at the Engine House may have been sound, but the decision to ride it from Whitstable was in hindsight completely bonkers.  Not that I lacked cycling experience, it’s just that the distance and time constraint was always going to be challenging, especially when coupled with lack of planning, poor preparation and bad eyesight.  Indeed, in the back of my mind lurked the thought that when the time came I’d probably put the bike in the car and take the easy option, which is why I told everyone about the plan, reasoning that having set myself up, pride would prevent me from ‘bottling’.

So, during the winter I sourced the bits and built the bike; on clement days I even cycled a few miles around the Kent lanes.  Then as spring approached I scoured the internet for a suitable tent.  The tent arrived while Glen and I were at Rousdon and so my neighbour took delivery of it.  He thought that it was a packet of handkerchiefs, but noticed the name ‘Gelert’ on the packaging and Googled it to check.  He would not accept that it was a tent until he had witnessed me trying to get into and out of what was basically a funereal shroud.  He gave Glen a sympathetic smile, muttered “plonker” under his breath, shook his head and walked away.

Day One

A reliable northeasterly breeze is rare, but this was what I needed to shove me west from Whitstable to Rousdon.  So, when a few days of suitable wind direction with dry conditions were forecast I loaded up and set off at the crack of dawn on a Sunday morning.  Initially I made excellent progress along the old ‘Crab and Winkle’ cycle route, through East Kent and on to the Romney Marsh.  I was cruising comfortably at 12 – 14 mph with the wind behind me and the morning sun on my back, thinking “this wasn’t such a bad idea after all”.  And then the wind shifted.  I noticed that all was not well as I hit the coast road with the sensation of a cool sea breeze on my left cheek.  By the time I reached Winchelsea the wind was a steady south westerly and my speed had dropped to below 10 mph.  And then came the first major slope; Fairlight Hill highlighted two elements of poor planning and preparation.  The bike only had provision for rear panniers and with weight on the back end it was difficult to stop the front wheel from lifting on the hills, so basically it turned itself into a unicycle.  The other obvious cock-up was my choice of route.  A lover of fresh sea air I’d reasoned that the coastal scenery would be a pleasant distraction and would aid navigation since all I needed to do was keep the sea on my left.  The downside was that the traffic was horrendous and the hills epic.

It was dusk when I eventually reached a campsite at Arundel; I had covered 120 miles in 13 hours.  Shattered, I limped to the shower block, freshened up, staggered to the pub and demolished three pints of best and a huge curry, then crawled into the ‘shroud’ and promptly got a severe attack of cramp.

Day Two

As day two dawned I was up, packed and raring to go.  Enthusiasm was tempered by doubt though due to uncertainty about the route.  It had occurred to me several times whilst poring over the maps that the south coast was not well served by quiet lanes running east-west; I’d dealt with this during the planning stage by convincing myself that the way would become clear once I was on the road.  Sadly, whilst in the midst of the morning rush-hour traffic negotiating cycle lanes designed by people whose approach to route planning was lamentably similar to my own it became apparent that the shortest distance between two points was out of the question.  South coast topography lends itself to the north-south bicyclist though, so I embarked upon a meandering zigzag with a subtle westerly drift, which is where the eyesight problem started to manifest itself resulting in considerably more zigzagging than was strictly necessary, so when I spotted bikes outside a café in Emsworth I decided to seek help and it was at this point that I realised how irritating ‘proper’ cyclists can be.

A few years ago Mark Beaumont cycled around the world; he set the record, wrote a book about it and the BBC made a documentary about his truly epic endeavour which was a testament to the benefit of good planning.  I digress, but the point of this digression is that since Beaumont’s adventure lots of others have set out to beat his record which probably accounts for the fact that every cyclist I met en route greeted me with “hello mate, you on a round the world tour?”.  And thus was the ridicule that greeted me on entering the café at Emsworth.  What was more irritating and a little sad was that the retired brethren therein were unable to suggest a reasonably traffic free route heading west; one of them (to the obvious embarrassment of his mates) suggested that I head east instead as the roads were better.  I enquired how this would lead to Lyme Regis; he just shrugged.

After a bacon sandwich and several cups of coffee I bade farewell to my amiable but unhelpful friends and continued my meanderings interspersed with myopic squinting at the OS, eventually arriving at the Town Quay in Southampton for a relaxing ferry ride to Hythe.  The Hythe ferry provides an excellent view of Southampton Water and the huge passenger liners that frequent Southampton docks, but the best bit is arriving at the end of the pier at Hythe.  If you arrive at Hythe without a bike you can take advantage of the world’s oldest pier train and gain access to this gateway to the New Forest.

From Hythe I picked up a cycle route bound for Brockenhurst; it was clearly signposted which was handy as I knew that there was a good campsite at Brockenhurst and I was by then, to put it bluntly knackered and unable to focus on the map.  Inevitably the signs ran out at about the same point that civilisation ended, so I followed the setting sun and eventually ended up at Lyndhurst.  The ride across the national park was superb, but the only camping in the vicinity of Lyndhurst required that you arrived with your own facilities, which in my case was problematic so I pressed on towards a dot on the map called Linwood which according to the OS had a campsite near a pub.  At this point I decided that if the campsite was but a figment of the cartographer’s imagination I’d make for the nearest pub for anaesthetic and chips and then find a spot for rough camping.  In the event the pub still had an adjacent campsite and although the Antipodean lad sussed that the sad old bloke with a bike was desperate, he must have been having a laugh when he charged me £15 to pitch my ‘shroud’ and chain my bike to the fence!  And then the landlady in the pub charged me for too many pints, although to be fair they were disappearing quite rapidly, so I may have lost count.  All in all though it was a good night.

Day Three

As day three dawned I was once again up and ready for action.  I’ve spent a fair amount of time under canvas over the years but I have to say that the dawn chorus at the ‘Red Shoot’ campsite was phenomenal; it must have been something in the beer because the campsite was fairly full and everyone was snoring – the birds didn’t get a look in!

With the sun just showing over the horizon it should have been impossible to cycle away from the campsite in the wrong direction.  Nevertheless, I’d covered several miles before the warmth on my face alerted me to the fact that I was heading east.  Not the best start to a day that was about to get a lot worse.

Having turned and retraced my tracks back past the campsite, it was just outside the village of Verwood that I decided to remove some layers as the morning sun aired the road.  I stopped by a farm track and leant the bike against a gate.  It was still early and the lanes were deserted apart from the Morris 1000 pickup that juddered to a halt with its rusty front bumper resting against my shin.  My first thought was “you don’t see many Morry thou pickups nowadays, must be a classic”.  Then the driver’s door flew open and things became tense.  The man hastily squeezing himself out of the van looked as though he had started life in the Appalachian Mountains; indeed, all that was missing was ‘duelling banjos’ playing on his eight-track.  As he growled “can I help you”, my buttocks were as clenched as his fists.  His beady eyes darted about looking for a spot to land his first punch and it was obvious that he was not going to await my reply.  At this point I need to digress again and refer to a mate called Tony.  Tony is a big lad and one of his more colourful jobs was as a bouncer, so he knows what he’s talking about when it come to violence.  It was Tony’s advice about what to do when faced with a situation that is about to ‘kick-off’ that I recalled.  Evidently the trick is to get the first punch in and make it a good one.  Apart from tattoos, there isn’t a mark on Tony, but his knuckles are all broken, so I believe his theory to be sound.  And so it was with Tony’s advice in mind that I too clenched my right fist as tight as my buttocks and was picking my spot just as the ‘hillbilly’s’ eyes stopped darting about and focussed on my bike.  “You cycling somewhere then?” he said, the tension visibly easing from his fists.  “Yep” I responded breezily “I’ve been going a couple of days; on my way to Lyme Regis”.  We chatted, we relaxed; evidently the gate I had chosen to lean my bike against belonged to his parents and backed onto their house which had recently been burgled, so seeing me at that time in the morning he was convinced that I was the burglar back for another go.  Anyway, we shook hands, but when he moved in to give me a hug by way of an apology the storyline from ‘Deliverance’ once again sprung to mind, I re-clenched my buttocks and beat a hasty retreat.

After Fairlight on day one I decided that major climbs were to be avoided and that the safest bet would be to go around significant topographical obstacles wherever possible.  So it was with this in mind that I squinted at the OS map with the intention of plotting a zigzag that would avoid the bit where the contour lines became plentiful around Bulbarrow Hill.  I headed confidently along a lane that was just about to be closed for resurfacing.  Exchanging insults with the engineers as I passed by and just (in my estimation) coming out on top in the ‘who’s a smartarse’ competition it occurred to me that a repeat run of the mornings lapse in navigational prowess, followed by a U turn would in the circumstances be ill advised.

I cycled on past a few cottages bidding a jolly “good morning” to the locals as I ambled along the gentle incline towards an ominously large escarpment.  In hindsight, the fact that all I received in return for my greetings were quizzical looks, perhaps I should have foreseen trouble ahead.

Rounding a bend I came upon a large cottage with outbuildings and skidded to a halt as the road turned into a track.  The reasonably fit looking chap in his mid forties who asked me where I was going was pleasant enough as he directed me to the footpath behind his house; as he said “I think it leads to the top of Bulbarrow Hill mate but I can’t say for certain as it’s too bloody steep for me to walk up”, not for the first time that day I felt a pang of unease.

I rode the first few hundred yards and then got off and walked; at this stage the climb seemed ok.  Then the track started to deteriorate and became difficult to push the bike along.  Then the gradient increased.  Then the large stones on the track increased in size until they were large boulders.  It was impossible to push the bike so I stumbled slowly backwards dragging the loaded beast behind me.  As sweat oozed from every pore the flies got wind of me and without a spare hand to bat them off I soon resembled the Japanese bloke in ‘Lord of the Flies’.  It occurred to me that at my age expending this amount of effort was probably unwise and that in the worst-case scenario, given the size and quantity of the flies, within 24 hours I would be reduced to a pile of bones.

Eventually the path ran out in the middle of a fallow field.  Through pinpricks of light between the flies I could just make out the sun which enabled me to head west.  Fairly soon I was relieved to hear the sound of traffic and soon after that I reached a road.  The view from the top of Bulbarrow Hill is indeed magnificent, but to be honest it was a view I could have done without.  Allegedly flies fly at an average speed of 5 mph but can reach speeds of up to 15 mph when threatened; my experience is that if they’re hungry you need to exceed 12mph to get away from them and if you stop to consult a map they are onto you again in a flash!

The free-wheel off of Bulbarrow was cooling and enjoyable.  I then headed towards Dorchester through some pretty villages and encountered yet another opportunity to make a bad decision.  Anyone who has explored the southwest will be aware that there are plenty of hills, so whilst trying to avoid the main roads I cannot be blamed entirely for choosing such a tortuous route but the stupidity of some of my decisions is just plain embarrassing.  Still, I’m being honest here so I’ll confess that the view from the Hardy Monument, over Chesil towards Portland and then across the Dorset countryside was spectacular; once again a view I neither wanted nor anticipated.  On this occasion I was certain that the Hardy Monument car park was in the valley and the climb was made on foot; ok, I should have checked the map more carefully.  Whilst unicycling up the hill towards the summit a group of American cyclists on racing bikes flashed by “tough climb” drawled one, “you on a round the world tour”, intoned the next “bollocks!” exclaimed I.

The free-wheel down from the Hardy monument was cooling and enjoyable but I was going so fast that I missed the turnoff and ended up in Abbotsbury.  “Not a problem” thought I, “the coast road from here to Bridport is fairly flat”, which was when I unicycled past the sign for sharp bends and a 20% gradient.

Bridport was more or less where the final OS map came into play so I was on the home straight.  Keen to avoid the A35 my intention was to follow National Cycle Network route 2.  Sadly I needed to consult the map that I had omitted to pack to ascertain where NCN 2 started.  Never mind, a trip to the Bridport tourist information office provided the necessary leaflet and the pleasant lady provided concise instructions together with a warning to be careful near the school as the school run was imminent.  After executing some hair-raising evasive manoeuvres in the vicinity of the school, all was going well until a point where it was not immediately clear which lane the little NCN route sign was pointing to and a helpful farmer stopped in his Land Rover to enquire if I needed assistance.  He dissuaded me from following my instincts (which given my track record seemed like a good call) and instead sent me off in a slightly oblique direction stating that the lane I was about to choose was far too flinty for a bike.  Sadly I had just been dissuaded from making my only good decision since leaving Whitstable, a point that was driven home by the extremely ‘fit’ young lady who shared her OS 1:25,000 with me an hour later as we deduced that I was once again going the wrong way.

Eventually I hit the B3165 just south of Crewkerne and finally cycled through North Lodge Gate at Rousdon late afternoon on day three.

The distance from CT5 to DT7 by car is 212 miles, so allowing for the requirement to avoid main roads I had estimated 250 miles by bike.  In the event I covered 288 miles.  Whilst sitting in the bath at 1 Engine House with a large glass of malt I decided that on balance the trip could not be described as enjoyable, but it had been an experience.  When on the following morning a neighbour asked if I’d do it again my answer was “probably not”.  If asked now though I’d say “you bet”.  But would I invest any more time at the planning stage?  Nah, life’s more interesting without a plan, although I have been to the optician…

 

Another Misadventure – Milton Keynes to Prague in a…

shitroenThe Challenge

I met Jeff while we were both working for the phone company.  Jeff was a purveyor of information and he was bloody good at it.  Together we built a successful team.  And it transpired that Jeff and I were more or less on the same wavelength about non-work-related subjects and thus was born an enduring friendship.  The pair of us went on to have several adventures, usually involving bikes and beer.

At this point I’ll introduce another couple of ‘characters’.  Young Graham is Jeff’s future son-in-law; well, I hope he is, because Matt (young Graham’s best mate), has promised me £50 if I can persuade Young Graham to marry Jeff’s daughter before Matt himself ties the knot.  Young Graham and Matt met at university; now in their late twenties, they have gone on to enjoy successful careers in trades associated with agriculture and have remained great mates, despite the fact that they take the piss out of each other incessantly.  Anyway, out of the blue came an email from Jeff…

Hi Graham – I got a call asking if I and one other would like to do a rally across Europe.  In a nutshell, we buy an old car for £200, paint it in some odd scheme (on the cheap) drive to wherever the rally starts then to the finish, then scrap the car and fly back.  I guess there will be a few beers involved.  What do you think?  No obligation to accept, if it’s not your thing then no problems.
Cheers
Jeff

I replied…

Hello Jeff – I’ve read through this 3 times:
– first thought… no chance!
– 2nd…mmmm sounds like fun!
– 3rd… yeah, why the hell not?
In conclusion, I’m up for it if you are.
g

Jeff later explained that he had been invited because the chances of making the trip in a car costing less than £200 would be significantly enhanced if you took along someone with mechanical skills and as Jeff is noted for his ‘spanner craft’, he fitted the job description.  Young Graham had evidently suggested that Jeff may wish to bring along a companion of advanced years to provide him with some company.  Henceforth I was referred to as ‘Old Graham’.

The preparations went smoothly and swiftly, with Young Graham taking care of the organisation; entry forms, hotels, flight home.  Jeff took care of the transport; acquisition of the car and its metamorphosis into a themed chariot suitable for conveying two youngsters and a couple of old gits across Europe in style.  Matt and I kept our heads down and left them to get on with it.

We had one planning meeting in London, but as the lads came down after work, by the time they arrived the senior citizens had crawled around several pubs and were slightly the worse for wear, to the extent that I forgot to keep an eye on the time and nearly missed the last train home.  Also, I mentioned in passing that I hadn’t driven a manual car in years and had developed the habit of left-foot breaking.  This could have disastrous consequences whilst negotiating downhill hairpins on mountain passes, a fact that was evident on the worried faces of my co-drivers.  Not an auspicious start.  The main point of the meeting was for me to get acquainted with the team and also to work out what our theme should be.  How the youngsters came up with ‘The Young Ones’ beats me, but upshot was that the four of us took a look at ourselves and each other and based on our character traits organised the casting as follows:

Mike – the father (in-law) figure would be played by Jeff.
Rick and Vyvyan – wayward teenagers with a penchant for (on one hand) fatuous semi-Marxism and (on the other) hitting people, would be played by Matt and Young Graham respectively.
And Neil – the put-upon housewife in all but name would be played by me… obviously.

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The route across Europe was tortuous to say the least.  The trip would be interspersed with various challenges along the way.  This was the itinerary…

Day 0 – Milton Keynes to Reims (340 miles) The plan was to leave Milton Keynes as early as possible and get to Dover for the tunnel.  Then drive south to Reims in time to settle in, attend the pre-rally briefing and have a few beers.

Day 1 – Reims to Chur (400 miles) through the gentle rolling countryside of the Champagne and Alsace regions of France before heading into the Swiss Alpine mountains to the picturesque city of Chur.

Day 2 – Chur to Fussen (250 miles) along a series of mountain passes, via Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Italy, Austria and Germany, taking in the Stelvio Pass and having a go on the Pradaschier toboggan run on the way.

Day 3 – Fussen to Prague (300 miles) via the medieval city of Regensburg, before heading over the Czech border onto Prague, for the final party and awards ceremony.

Exodus

We met at Jeff’s in Milton Keynes and then went for a few beers.  The atmosphere was a bit tense; the endeavour was going to be challenging, and although Jeff and Young Graham were well acquainted, the four of us needed to gel, otherwise the trip was going to be a trial.

We decided that I should drive the first leg to Dover as I needed to relearn how to use a clutch and forget how to left-foot brake; a challenge that would be best addressed whilst driving on a familiar side of the road.  We got as far as the first roundabout before the engine management light came on (it stayed on for the rest of the trip), which caused me to have a lack of concentration on the gear front, so with my left foot ‘pushed to the boards’, we coasted out into the traffic.  Full credit to the Milton Keynes rush-hour drivers who swerved expertly around us.  And, full credit to my co-drivers; we escaped unhurt and no one uttered a word, although a nasty smell did emanate from the vicinity of Matt.

The Trip

The trip went according to plan.  We completed all sections of the rally via prescribed routes, undertook various mental challenges along the way and arrived in Prague feeling fairly fresh and ready to party.  It was a great trip; the team gelled… all good then?  So far so boring… well, stay with me.

The Swiss Kiss

We collected the detailed itinerary for day 2 in the carpark of the Pradaschier toboggan run.  By then we’d been down the toboggan run.  The toboggans run on rails so if you keep your nerve there’s absolutely no need to use the brakes.  I left my braking as late as possible but had to succumb in the end to avoid rear-ending Matt.

Day 2 involved taking various photos to prove where we’d been and needed to include a photo of two team members kissing whilst dressed as minions.  We concluded that the forfeit outweighed the value of the points to be earned.  Driving around the continent attired as ‘The Young Ones’ disguised as minions was bad enough, but kissing, or being kissed by either Jeff, Matt or Young Graham was totally out of the question and from how they sounded at the time, my teammates were similarly minded.  However, when Matt landed the kiss on my cheek, I was moved by the tenderness and the cherub-like softness of his puckered lips… guess it’s worth trying everything life has on offer.

P1000456

The picture shows us celebrating our success, which is where the story should’ve ended.  However…

The Mafia

akOne of Jeff’s many preparatory tasks had been to work out how we were going to get rid of the car.  Dumping it was out of the question on both ethical grounds (honestly!) and the fact that we were almost certain to get found out and fined.  Matt had suggested parking it overnight with the doors unlocked and the keys in the ignition, but this plan would fail on two counts.  The car was a bloody eyesore; Jeff had done his best to make it look attractive and although I have a lot of admiration for his abilities, artistic flair isn’t one of them; no one was going to steal the car for keeps.  No, the Shitroen was only likely to be stolen by a joyrider who would dump it somewhere in Prague and we’d still get found out and fined.  We elected to do the right thing.  Jeff contacted a scrap dealer located on the outskirts of Prague who agreed to take the vehicle off our hands and then drive us to the airport.  It sounded too good to be true, and you know what they say about something that sounds too good to be true…

The final night of celebration in Prague was a joyous and noisy affair.  The ‘Young Ones’ had concentrated on the tasks set by the rally organisers well enough to earn them second place and one hundred euros.  We drank the prize money in less than an hour and emerged into the warm evening, slightly unsteady on our feet.  We were immediately accosted by a dubious looking character clutching a mobile phone in one hand and a fist full of euros in the other; he was offering to buy the cars.  Jeff explained that we had already made arrangements and that this involved a lift to the airport.  As Jeff politely declined and the man turned to leave, I asked him for his phone number just in case.

During breakfast the next morning, Jeff received a call from his ‘scrappage’ contact.  Evidently the venue needed to change; the car would be processed separately from their usual wrecks as it was registered in the UK.  This sounded a bit odd, but plausible, so Young Graham programmed the new location into his phone and off we headed, out of town, to find the scrap dealer.

We envisaged a typical scrapyard on the edge of town, but in the event, we drove into the countryside and ended up at what looked like a derelict barn.  During the previous evenings celebration I had drunk the least and so was once again behind the wheel.  As I drove towards a pair of large derelict barn doors I became very uneasy; this just didn’t feel right.  There didn’t appear to be any vehicles, scrap or otherwise, and no sign of life.

As I glanced up at the rear-view mirror I could see dust kicking up from a vehicle following us at speed down the track… uneasy quickly turned into shit-scared.  “We’ve got company,” I intoned, trying to sound calm and failing miserably, “and it looks as though they’re in a hurry.”

We were getting close to the barn doors now, close enough to slow down, so I shoved my left foot on the first pedal that presented itself and crashed straight through the doors with my co-drivers screaming “BRAKES” in unison.  My right foot eventually found the brake and the Shitroen stalled about ten yards inside the empty barn.  The following vehicle, a black Merc with blacked out windows, executed a near perfect handbrake turn and came to a halt blocking any hope of a quick exit.  Three Slavic looking blokes jumped out and one of them was carrying a rusty AK47… I noticed that smell again.

As they approached, Matt wound down his window and threw out a general question, “hey mate, how are you going to get all four of us plus luggage into that?”  Matt had a good, but given the current set of circumstances, entirely superfluous point.

The bloke with the gun waved it at us, clearly indicating that we were to get out of the car.  We complied and I asked “what the hell is going on here?  We were supposed to meet a scrap dealer; who are you and what do you want?”

The bloke with the gun was slightly built, in his mid-thirties, fairly fit looking, but only properly scary due to the AK.  His companions however looked bloody evil, over six foot with the physiques of body builders.  All three of them were adorned with various tattoos that looked as though they meant something.

The bloke with the gun was probably the brains of the outfit.  From an inside pocket he dragged a pristine looking book.  I could make out Cyrillic script on the cover and the words ‘INGLISCH/FRANCHE’ in bold capitals; a phrasebook, and from the look of it, not a very good one.

Mr Gun cleared his throat and spoke clearly “ve av her grand batteau commink” he paused and flicked a couple of pages “yous await or me shoot yous”.

I said “oh fuck!”

Mr Gun said “does whas weez says or weeez fucks yous.”

I smelt that smell again.

Jeff’s phone rang.  Mr Gun walked quickly over, drove the muzzle of the gun into Jeff’s midriff and as my mate slumped forward, he brought the gun smartly up under his chin.  Jeff fell backwards, clearly hurting and clearly shocked.  Mr Gun held out his hand for the phone.  Jeff handed it to him.

Mr Gun answered the phone but said nothing.  Mr Gun nodded a couple of times and It became clear that someone was giving him instructions.  Mr Gun walked up to each of us in turn, looked us over and then spoke.  Although we didn’t have a clue what was being said, it seemed clear enough that Mr Gun was describing us to whoever was on the other end of the call.  After he had completed his explanations, Mr Gun handed the phone back to Jeff, indicating that Jeff should listen.

Give him his due, Jeff tried to reason with the caller, but after a while he just fell silent and listened.  Then he handed his phone back to Mr Gun who terminated the call and trousered the phone.

Muscles One produced some cable ties which he used to bind our wrists.  The three of them walked away out of earshot and went into a conference.

We needed a plan and we needed it quick.  It was obvious that these gangsters didn’t understand any English, but we kept our voices down as Jeff filled us in on some details.

“We’re seriously in the shit.  It was the same bloke on the phone who phoned me earlier with the change of venue.”  Jeff turned to me “they’re not interested in us… too old.  If we go along with them, they’ll tie us up and leave us here for someone to find.  It’s the lads they’re interested in.  Evidently Young Graham has the boyish good looks favoured by a particular type of ‘client’, which is the main reason for the kidnapping.  Matt here isn’t suitable for the KY jelly assignment, but he’s strong enough to work in a diamond mine… this is a nightmare.”

Young Graham started whimpering.

My mouth moved up and down, but nothing came out.  And then I smelt the smell again “Matt mate, how are you doing that?”

You meet some interesting characters over sixty odd years and a yarn told to me by a double-glazing salesman sprang to mind.  Evidently while this particular double-glazing salesman was fulfilling a peace-keeping role in Kosovo (in the British army, not selling double glazing… keep up!), he was confronted in a basement by an AK47 wielding local.  The local fired one-handed from point blank range and missed.  He shot several more rounds, all of which missed, although by this time he was trying to hit a moving target.  The double-glazing salesmen reasoned that one handed, the AK was useless.

An idea occurred to me.

In his youth, Jeff did karate.  He told me that he was good at it; reactions of a whippet and technique to match.  Jeff had also mentioned a method he once practiced to prepare him in the event of a serious street fight.  This involved a sheet of plywood, super-glue and large grapes.  The exercise required great accuracy, both in terms of hitting pairs of grapes with index and middle finger and also applying the correct amount of force to split the grapes but avoid breaking fingers against plywood.  Jeff’s right-hand index and middle finger have distinct kinks; he didn’t always get it right.

I outlined the plan.  We needed to disable Mr Gun and Jeff and I would take him on.

We also needed to slow down Muscles One and Two.  I’d only known Matt and Young Graham for a short time.  Young Graham had a sharp mind; he was physically fit, but to be honest, when he agreed to take on the slightly smaller of the big blokes, I was seriously impressed by how readily he agreed to act as a human sacrifice.

Matt was a different ‘kettle-of-fish’.  He was clearly capable of waging solo chemical warfare, but for this exercise we’d need speed and brute force.  I suggested that he may wish to take on the big fella.  From the tenderness of his kiss in Switzerland, I knew that Matt had a sensitive side, but with a lopsided wry smile, he looked down at his tethered wrists and twisted, the bindings dug into his wrists, which started to bleed.  His smile turned into a grin.  The binding snapped.  Matt said “just tell me when.”

Matt must have been in the boy-scouts, because he carefully unbuttoned his shirt and ripped out a small knife that he’d gaffer taped to his chest.  He glanced over to the group of gangsters who were by now in heated debate about something and paying us no attention whatsoever.  Matt cut our bindings.

I muttered quietly, setting out the plan.

Jeff and I had considered taking the ‘tied-up-and-left’ option and leaving the lads to a life of KY jelly and servitude, but we agreed that the story about leaving us to be found was bullshit.  They were going to kill us.  This high-risk plan was all we had.

We sat quietly and tried to calm ourselves.  Eventually the gangster conference came to an end.  They came over.  We got to our feet; not an easy task pretending that your hands are still tied.

Mr Gun reached inside his jacket and pulled out his little book.  Timing was going to be crucial.  I watched as he crooked the gun under his right armpit and moved his finger away from the trigger.  I got eye contact with him and then looked slightly to his right; ok, this sounds a bit hackneyed, but this opponent wasn’t the brightest star in the firmament, so it worked, he turned his head towards where I was looking – the barn doors.  I set off at a lick towards him, shouting “now” as I went.  It was like a sprint race, with me just jumping the gun (literally!).  I ignored everything going on around me and concentrated on the muzzle of the AK which was swinging up to meet me.

Mr Gun took a step back and fired one handed.  The recoil threw his aim back down and to my left, just missing my left foot.

I grabbed the muzzle just before the next round exited, wrenching the AK from Mr Guns grip.  My momentum carried me forward and to his right.  I completed a forward roll and came up still clutching the gun just in time to see Jeff deliver his signature blow.  Jeff instinctively emitted a Kungfu shriek, which was swiftly followed by a sickening squelch and then a blood curdling scream as Mr Gun reacted to being blinded.

Mr Gun was disabled.  Matt was kneeling on Muscles One, pounding his fists into a face which was fast turning into a bloodied mess.  Young Graham was standing guard over his target, who was on his back nursing his bollocks.

The four of us looked at each other with ‘what next’ expressions.  Young Graham took charge.

Young Graham snatched the AK from me and ran over to Muscles Two who was still clutching his balls; Graham rammed the butt of the gun into the stricken Gangsters neck, who reacted by releasing his balls and using his hands to protect his head, thus affording an open goal, which Young Graham promptly took, smashing the butt of the gun into Muscles Two’s groin.  Then Young Graham ran over to the Merc, shot out three of its tyres, grabbed the ignition key and then ran for the Shitroen.  “Come on, let’s get the fuck out of here.”  Good plan.  Matt and I ran for the back doors.  Jeff retrieved his phone from Mr Gun and then jumped into the front passenger seat, wiping vitreous fluid from his fingers onto his trousers as he went.

The Merc was blocking the exit so Young Graham drove through the wall and away up the track.  As he was driving, Young Graham suggested that the sensible option was to say nothing and get on a plane as soon as possible.  I phoned the bloke who’d approached us the evening before and told him that if he was still interested the car would be parked in the airport car park with the keys on the nearside front tyre.  We took a chance on the documentation.

So that was that.  As we stood in the departure queue, it occurred to me that we must have looked a sorry sight.  Jeff had taped his rebroken fingers together and Matt was nursing broken knuckles.  The Graham’s were in pretty good shape, just a bit dishevelled.

Young Graham broke the silence “anyone fancy doing Monte Carlo next year?”

I smelt that smell again.

 

 

Mystical Cats

Terry Pratchett is credited with stating… ‘In ancient times cats were worshipped as gods; they have not forgotten this.’  I reckon he was onto something.

Phobia

Until one particular stray cat wandered into my life, I disliked the supposedly domesticated version of the feline species with a passion bordering on paranoia; in hindsight this was mainly due to ignorance on my part.  The problem was that if I was in a room with a cat and several cat lovers, whilst I studiously ignored the cat and avoided eye contact, the cat lovers would be trying all kinds of attraction techniques to entice the feline onto their lap.  Invariably the cat ignored all welcoming gestures and made a beeline for me, where it would sink its claws through my trousers, into my thighs and then pull and plump with a look of sheer bliss on its face, before settling down for an untroubled nap.  I would be paralysed with fear; a state that the human contingent invariably found highly amusing.  My problem was that cats hate being stared at or cajoled; everything they do is on their terms.  My show of disinterest had exactly the opposite effect to what I intended.

Kittens

Even I, a hardened ailurophobic, became briefly seduced through a chance encounter with a litter of kittens though.  I was with my stepfather; we were on a narrow-boat cruise and the pair of us had escaped to the pub while dinner was being prepared.  It was a chilly autumn evening and the remote inn had a log fire going with a couple of comfortable armchairs strategically positioned for the enjoyment of a well-kept pint by the fire; dad and I duly obliged.  I had noticed some kittens curled up in a heap with their mum as we entered the pub and resolved to adopt my usual ‘don’t you dare come near me’ attitude, so I was somewhat surprised when a tiny bundle of fluff made its way onto my lap and immediately settled.  Some moments later a second kitten joined its sibling and very soon the whole brood had chosen some part of me to snuggle into.  Their mum, having been deserted, decided she too would join us and took up a position along the top of the chair back.  By this time the other customers were enchanted; I however was afraid to move, but after dad had replenished my beer glass a few times, I gained some courage and egged on by a desperate need to take-a-leak, extricated myself from the chair and headed for the gents.  The cats jumped off.  At this point, the cuteness of the situation became too much for several other patrons as various people tried their luck in the comfy chair.  The kittens were having none of it; people tried scooping them up and sitting in the chair.  The kittens immediately jumped off.  By the time I returned, the animal lovers had given up and vacated the armchair, so I sat down again with my pint.  Within seconds the whole feline family was back on me.

So, by the time Tuppie turned up some years later I had mellowed slightly, but not by much.

Tuppie

During March 1993 we moved into a newly built house on the outskirts of Whitstable.  We were the first people onto what was a new development, set amongst woodland on the edge of a golf course.  Tuppie turned up in September and stayed with us for twenty years.

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Although I was anything but a cat lover, my wife Glenys was completely the opposite.  On this particular late summer morning I was standing by the open bathroom window having a shave as the unmistakable sound of mewing wafted up from below.  Glen heard it too and quick as a flash she was out of the back door with a tin of salmon.  My fate was sealed.

There was no way I was going to let a young flea-infested stray cat onto my new carpets, so we compromised by me building the visitor a kennel while we attempted to find out where she had come from.  We travelled around the neighbourhood, knocking on random doors, asking if anyone knew of someone who had lost a tortoiseshell cat; no one had; I was lumbered; Glen was delighted.

Tortoiseshells are noted for their ‘attitude’.  Our new resident was delightfully friendly as she inveigled her way into her new home.  Once the hard-sell had been completed she turned into a typical snooty cat.  She absolutely adored sitting on my lap while I administered the nit-comb though.  She would purr contentedly as I carefully combed out her matted fur and then, when she’d had enough, without any warning she’d turn around and bite me.  Over the years she learned how to moderate the severity of her bite so as to avoid drawing blood, and for that, I was grateful.

For all her fractious behaviour, thanks to Tuppie, our house became a home.  Oh yes, the name, why Tuppie?  Once it became obvious that our furry ball of teeth and claws had been abandoned, we took her to the vet for a check-up.  The vet needed a name for registration, so I insensitively tendered ‘Turnup’.  By the time we left, the vet had changed this to Tuppie; the name stuck.

And as for the handle ‘mystical cat’, there are several slightly odd tales to relate.

Although Tuppie always remained aloof she did seem strangely attached to us.  She had turned up from who knows where and although immediately after she’d adopted us she would wander far and wide she very quickly restricted her roaming to the immediate vicinity, even to the extent that when we went for a walk across the golf course she would follow us as far as the garden gate and then wait until we returned; we could hear her pitiful wailing from some distance away.  She had no problem with us leaving by the front door and going to work because she seemed to know where we were, even to the extent that despite our odd hours, she would take up a watchful position on the front windowsill and after about five minutes, one of us would arrive home.

Tuppie was never a ‘lap-cat’.  Generally, the only time she’d sit on my lap was when I was brandishing the nit comb.  As a back sufferer, I went through a daily stretching exercise that involved lying face down on the floor; the cat ignored this.  However, my back problems worsened to the extent that major surgery was required and on discharge from hospital I was instructed to continue with the usual exercise, which I did immediately on arrival home.  As I lay on the floor I was aware of gentle footsteps along the back of my legs as Tuppie made her way to the problem area.  She positioned herself immediately over the part of my back that had been operated on and lay down.  Her warmth was soothing and her presence comforting.  This daily ritual continued for several weeks until the scarring had healed.  I continued with the exercise, but Tuppie never again took up position on my back.

It was a similar story when Glen underwent major surgery.  On arrival home from hospital, as soon as she sat down, the cat was on her lap; Tuppie continued this therapy until Glen had healed and once she had, Tuppie’s ministrations immediately ceased.

Strangest of all was the cat’s reaction to Geoff, my stepfather.  Geoff loved animals but try as he might, Tuppie was having none of it.  He’d approach her with friendly gestures, she’d hiss and walk away.  When my mother died the depth of dad’s sadness and despair was palpable.  We arrived home from mum’s funeral in a haze of confusion.  Glen and I knew how much Geoff had relied on his wife and we wondered how he was going to manage.  Glen put the kettle on, Geoff sat down and Tuppie gently made her way onto his lap.  The change in his mood was dramatic; I could see his anxiety melt away, he sat back, closed his eyes and stroked the cat; Tuppie purred reassuringly.  Although Geoff never fully recovered from the loss of his dear wife, this mystical cat had somehow understood his grief and pain and did her best to ease his suffering.

We moved soon after Tuppie died; the house was empty without her.

Mike

When Mike showed up we were living in temporary accommodation on the Devon/Dorset border, searching for inspiration about where to settle permanently.  Mike’s companion needed to make an extended trip to America and was looking for someone to provide lodgings for this huge tabby cat while she was gone.  Someone had mentioned that we were ok with cats and so Mike’s companion popped the question and we said ok.

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Cats get attached to their surroundings and although Mike had originated in the USA and moved about a bit since, he was initially very disturbed and unsettled.  Most of our belongings were in storage, but we had kept some things in boxes stored under the beds and Mike hid among these boxes until hunger, thirst and curiosity drove him from his lair.

Having shared my home with a cat for twenty years, I had naturally overcome my fear of them and was confident that Mike and I would strike up a reasonably comfortable relationship; how wrong I was.  Mike stayed with us for several months and during the whole of this time he treated me with complete and utter contempt!

Once Mike plucked up the courage to leave the boxes, he clapped eyes on Glen.  It was love at first sight; the old boy was totally besotted.  This huge beast would trail around after my wife all day.  The instant she sat down he was onto her lap and when she went to bed, he’d ‘spoon’ along her back with his arm (it was big enough to look like an arm!) around her neck.  When I attempted to get into bed he’d turn his head and fix me with an icy stare which said ‘she’s mine now, bugger off’.  I’d squeeze in next to the pair of them and his distaste for me invariably drove him out.  He’d slink off to his room and wait until I was asleep and then creep back in around the other side of the bed and clamber back under the covers, wisely keeping Glen between us.

Mike developed a strange habit while he was with us; he would only drink from a running tap.  His tactic was to attract Glens attention and then stand astride the bathroom sink.  Glen would turn the tap on and Mike would lap the running water… weird.

Despite our rivalry, for my part I became quite fond of Mike; his antics were an entertaining diversion from the worry of finding somewhere permanent to live.  When his companion came to collect him, and took him away from the woman he had fallen in love with, he was clearly distraught.  Quite soon after we learned that he had jumped from a first-floor window and landed on a garden bench.  Luckily Mike was unhurt, but the bench broke in half under the weight of this huge tabby tom.  It was probably just an accident, but the romanticist in me reckons he was trying to get back to his true love, or die in the attempt.

So, have I turned into a cat lover?  Not a question I can easily answer.  If anything, my encounters with these supposedly domesticated felines have left me wondering if maintaining a reverential respect is, in the long run, the safest option.

How about your own encounter with a mystical cat?  If you have a story that you would like to share then please let me know by either leaving a reply or emailing me.  If I can make your anecdote fit, then I’ll use it to expand Mystical Cats, so let me know how anonymous you want your contribution to be.

 

Bloke Dancing

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Why?

If you are married to, the partner of, going out with, or just met… a ‘bloke’, do please read this.  And then get your bloke to read it.  You may both thank me.

Just over three years ago, in an effort to stay fit, my wife took up line dancing.  It didn’t go well.  Occasionally she would come home after a session on the dance floor with a smile on her face and a jig in her step, and reach for a glass of ‘sauv’ in celebration.  More often than not though she’d arrive home looking crestfallen, muttering something about a car-crash and reach for a glass of ‘sauv’ to lift her spirits.  Line dancing didn’t last long.

There is a bloke who lives just up the road; he’s over six foot, an ex-rugby player and built like a brick outhouse.  One day the pair of us were doing some forestry work and he suggested that perhaps I should give salsa dancing a go… ‘no chance!’ was my immediate and unequivocal response.

Some weeks later, my mate once again posed the question about me maybe giving salsa a crack… ‘you’ve gotta be kidding me!’ was my terse reply.  However, on this occasion, I did mention it to my wife, who, after her recent experiences was even less enthusiastic than I was.  Nevertheless, at some point it occurred to me that through our forty odd years together, we had shared our lives, but not much in the way of hobbies, so as time went on I started to view this dancing shenanigans in a different light.  Also, I’d read articles about how older people can most effectively stay fit and stave off dementia; dancing was right up there near the top of the list.  Maybe I should reconsider?

Another week or so went by and my mate gave it another go.  It became clear that he had an ulterior motive for wanting to recruit me; dance classes are always short of blokes.  This time I suggested that he should have a go at persuading my ‘better half’, because there was no way I was going on my own.  My wife, albeit reluctantly, caved in.

We gave it a go.  And we’re still at it.  Okay, I’ll never be any good, but it is fun, good exercise and a great way to meet people.

It is not my intention to try and inform anyone about how to dance.  However, the experience of learning has given me an insight into the psychology of ‘bloke dancing’ and the enjoyment that an average bloke can derive from it, so this is what I’m going to share.

Will you look daft?

Absolutely not!  There is always a shortage of male leads (blokes).  I often quip that I have never been so popular with the ladies, but strewth, at times popularity on the dance floor can be exhausting!  My point is that from the moment you can manage the most basic of steps, you will literally be welcomed with open arms.

Overcoming an initial lack of self-confidence is a major obstacle for anyone embarking on something like this though; particularly us blokes.  I overcame this in part by resorting to the good old standby – Google.  Salsa, and from what I can make out, most other dances have a few basic beginner steps.  Once you and your partner, or even you on your own have made the decision to give a particular dance style a shot, then check out the basic steps online, listen to some typical music that suits the style you are going for and get an insight; this will help you to relax when the instructor says ‘okay folks, we’re going to do a mambo.’  Oh, and most importantly, don’t take yourself too seriously; it’s fun if it goes right and, with a sense of humour, just as much fun when it goes wrong!

Find a comfortable dance class

I use the word ‘comfortable’ because before setting foot on a dance floor you need to examine your motive.  If you want to dance like Fred Astaire and win prizes, then you’ve left it too late mate, you should’ve started years ago.  If you just want to have some fun with like-minded people and discover new friends through a shared interest, then you need to find a class that welcomes beginners and places enjoyment ahead of expertise.  If you are lucky enough to have a mate living up the road who already dances and can give you an introduction then good for you.  If not, then go along to a class, have a chat and see what they are like.  The instructors should be welcoming, enjoy what they do and their pupils should clearly be having fun.  If not, then find somewhere else.

From my limited experience, dance classes run in cycles, so find out when the next series of beginner classes start and give it a shot.  And, this is most important, give it at least a month before deciding if you are going to stick it out.  Sometime during that first month you will hopefully experience your ‘eureka moment’.

Eureka moments

I can only relate to my own experiences here, but for me there were three.

  • All of a sudden, the music took control of me and I no longer needed to try and fit myself into it. I guess this means that I had developed a sense of rhythm.  It felt great!
  • And then, armed with that newfound sense of rhythm I found myself partnering someone who could really dance; in that moment I realised what it was all about. I was hooked!
  • And best of all, while my wife and I were applying our basic steps to an Argentine tango, I realised that she instinctively knew what was coming before I’d even thought of leading it and whoosh, we merged into a single rhythmic entity…magic!

Dance with strangers

The main reason for dancing is to enjoy it with your partner.  After all, this is a hobby you can share.  However, if you are both beginners, then sticking to each other like a limpet to a rock will hold you both back.  You’ll soon understand why…

  • It doesn’t matter how loving, considerate and perfect your relationship is, when you first dance together and it goes wrong, you’ll blame each other and a ‘domestic’ will ensue; believe me, it will!
  • If you stick with just your partner, you’ll miss the opportunity of learning by example from people who are much better dancers than you.
  • If you just stick with your partner, then you’ll miss the benefit of social interaction and the opportunity to make some great mates.

Trust, respect and consideration

When you dance with a stranger you will need all of the above attributes and so will they.  This is obvious when you think about it;

  • The dance hold is an embrace that you must both feel comfortable and secure in. Be aware of where your hands and feet are AND CONCENTRATE!  My problem has been absentmindedly straightening out the odd annoyingly twisted bra strap; fine when I happened to be partnering my wife, but not on when dancing with a stranger.  Incidentally, if any of my dance partners are reading this, then please accept my sincere apologies!
  • It’s the blokes job to lead. Your dance partner will know that this is not easy and they will cut you slack.  If you cock-it-up, then apologise, smile, pick up the rhythm and give it another go.  If your partner cocks-it-up then apologise (yes mate, it may not be your fault, but you are leading, so say sorry anyway!), smile, pick up the rhythm and give it another go.  After all, it’s our job to make the lady look good; and on that subject…
  • Showing off won’t go down too well.
  • We have more recently embarked upon learning the Argentine tango. This is a very sensual dance (when done properly, so for us, maybe not-so-much), so remembering the above is very important when dancing with a stranger.  And remember, just because a style of dance can be danced in a very close embrace, doesn’t mean that it has to be!

Support and enjoy the novices

Many years ago, I taught people to scuba dive.  One of the highlights was escorting a novice on their first open water dive.  Before entering the water they were gripped by excitement and fear in equal measure.  After the dive they were filled with joy and wonderment.  In my experience, dancing is similar.

In the beginning I was very apprehensive, but thanks to some supportive and encouraging dance partners, apprehension soon melted away.  Nowadays we always join in with the beginner class; in a way this is one of the most rewarding aspects of going to a dance school.  A group of non-dancers come along with their non-dancing partners, they do a couple of steps, and then our instructor calls… ‘leads stay where you are and followers move around one.’ For most people this is a terrifying shock; it certainly was for us when we started.  But, as you welcome the novice into hold and try to put them at ease, their look of horror soon turns to a smile.  And, once they have completed a couple of circuits, it’s ‘high-fives’ all the way!

In conclusion

Blokes of all ages could benefit from giving dancing a go:

  • If you’re a young bloke, then bear in mind that dancing was how your grandparents enjoyed themselves and may well be how they met in the first place. Your mates will probably take the pxxx (so don’t tell them!), but you’ll have the last laugh when the music starts and you demonstrate flair on the dance floor.
  • If you are in the ‘middle years’ and the kids have fled, then dancing is a hobby that you and your ‘other half’ can enjoy together.
  • I’ve witnessed some good friendships and partnerships develop through dancing. Having a shared interest is a great start, so you never know…?
  • Considerable physical and mental health benefits can be derived from dance. Check out… https://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/getting-started-guides/Pages/getting-started-dancing.aspx
  • And finally, if you live in the East Devon/West Dorset area, then I can wholeheartedly recommend salsa sabai.