Postscript – the great Thanet tandem mystery

In preparing for the Barcelona to Bristol trip I did several rides on the Thanet, one of which took me along the Bristol to Bath Cycle Path just a few weeks ago. When I arrived at Bitton, where there’s a small steam railway and cafe, I met a bloke selling a couple of old bicycle parts from his van in the car park. He said that mine was the second Thanet he’d seen that week, and that the first one was a tandem.

When I got home, I checked Hilary Stone’s book and, sure enough, two Thanet tandems were made in the early 1950s, one for the firm’s owner, Les Cassell, and another that was sold to a “deaf and dumb man” in Bristol. I called Hilary and told him the story. He doesn’t know the whereabouts of either Thanet tandem, or indeed if both of them still exist. Clearly, one still does. Does anyone know of its whereabouts?

The Thanet Silverlight comes home after 61 years

He (Les Cassell) eventually bought the freehold of 50 Elmdale Road, Bedminster, for which he had his leg pulled by some of his friends for being a “bloated capitalist”.
Hilary Stone, Ease with Elegance, The Story of Thanet Cycles.

Yesterday, on the way over to Portsmouth on the ferry from Saint-Malo, I remembered a coaching inn on the edge of the Hampshire South Downs where Richard (my cycling pal from our village) and I had stayed last year en-route to Paris on our bikes. We’d enjoyed a great welcome and good food there. I did a quick web search on the iPhone and booked the last available room. The George and Falcon at Warnford doesn’t serve food on a Sunday evening but I was assured that Mat, who runs the place, would be able to make a sandwich for my scheduled arrival between 8:30 and 9:00pm.

The pub is 16 miles from the ferry terminal and I was pleasantly surprised to pick up a well-signposted cycle path through Portsmouth. I then climbed a long, steep hill up onto the South Downs. It seemed to me to be the toughest of the whole trip, but that may simply have been tiredness. The ride to Warnford was a bit of race against impending darkness because I managed to take the long way around again, rather than the most direct route. It rained intermittently, but I didn’t get soaked. When I arrived at my destination for the night, the promised sandwich was forthcoming, washed down with a couple of glasses of wine and I slept soundly through to 6:30am. It was raining when I left at 8:30 after a very good breakfast. The rain was to continue on and off all day.

Setting out in the rain from the George and Falcon for the last day of the trip.

The final day’s journey started with a climb onto the South Downs again as I headed for Winchester. My route then took me via Andover, Devizes, Melksham and Bath, before following the Bristol and Bath Cycle Path into Bristol. At one point, I ended up on the A34 dual carriageway north of Winchester and the traffic was horrific. I should have paid more attention to the map and gone through the centre of Winchester, picking up the Andover road without using the A34. I turned off the dual carriage with great relief at the first opportunity.

The day’s ride was pretty wet and windy but I was riding through wonderful countryside, crossing both the South Downs and Salisbury Plain. It got easier after Devizes, with very few hills and greater shelter from the wind. At one point, I passed within 2 miles of home but I was determined to achieve the original goal of taking the Thanet back to where it was made: 50 Elmdale Road, Bristol.

Riding along very familiar roads, I went through Bath onto the cycle path, the first major cycleway in the country created by Sustrans.  As I arrived in Bristol, the heavens really opened and I got my first and only major soaking of the whole trip. Finding Elmdale Road took about another 30 minutes, and when I arrived at my destination I was surprised to find that 50 and 50A, as they are now, had been subject to some serious development at the front and didn’t look at all like the building as it was in 2008. I actually double-checked to make sure I was at the right place, which I was. There were no answers when I rang the doorbells so I just propped the bike up outside and took my photographs.

50 Elmdale Road, Bristol  BS3: the Thanet Silverlight comes home after
more than 61 years, but nobody else is at home.

According to my Garmin Edge 200 GPS, I had covered the 903 miles in 8 days 10 hours and 20 minutes. (Due to some finger trouble in St Emillion, the journey was actually split into two sections, Barcelona to St Emillion and St Emillion to Bristol).

I finally rode the 25 miles home to a very warm welcome from my family. Champagne, roast chicken and asparagus fresh from the garden. What could be better after 928 miles in the saddle?

What next? This looks fun: L’Eroica (and I do have a 1965 Hetchins bike in the garage that needs a good run).

An early arrival at Saint-Malo, by 4 days

Saint-Malo (French pronunciation: [sɛ̃.ma.lo]; Gallo : Saent-Malô; Breton: Sant-Maloù) is a walled port city in Brittany in northwestern France on the English Channel. It is a sub-prefecture of the Ille-et-Vilaine.
Wikipedia.

I left Pouzages at 7am yesterday morning with the aim of putting in a big day. No big lunches, no relaxing coffee beaks, just head down and see how far I could travel. The temperature was 3C, according to a sign on the side of a commercial building but with the NNE wind still blowing it felt even colder.

At least the day started off brightly and the beginning of the journey, through rolling hills and hedgerow lined fields, was not unlike cycling near home in Wiltshire. The hills were quite hard work. However, most of the time the terrain provided some degree of shelter from the wind, so that was very welcome. (As I write this, I’m sat at lunch on the ferry to Portsmouth and the guy on the next table has just said that the weather forecast for Berkshire tomorrow is a 90% chance of rain and 25 mph winds – from the SW – again, not quite head on, but close enough!)

The countryside looked like Wiltshire, but the cows are different.

The crank continued to squeal in pain, but at least when it was squealing I knew that things were still tightly connected. It was when the squealing stopped and the clunking began that I knew things were falling apart. That happened just once during the day buy by now I was able to tighten everything up petty quickly.

Parts of the ride were once again along long, undulating Roman roads, some sections through forests. Because I was in a bit of a hurry, I was grabbing food at shops along the way. My diet was a disgrace – Danish pastries, croissants, energy drinks, chocolate bars and even Liquorice Allsorts (although I think the French version is called something else).

The ride took me over the Loire. In the past couple of days I had already traversed the Garonne, Dordogne and Charente rivers, as well as a host of minor ones, so if there’s ever a pub quiz question about naming major French rivers from south to north, I could be in the money. If the question’s about north to south, that would be tougher. The Loire crossing was by far the most picturesque with wide sandy beaches lining the banks as I cycled across an attractive suspension bridge at Ingrandes. The sun was shining, the terrain was reasonably flat, yet sheltered somehow from the worst of the wind, and I made good progress.

The area just north of Ingrandes in the Loire valley provided some of the best cycling of the trip.

I had numbered my map sections for France from 2 to 13. Number 1 would have been Spain, but I hadn’t had a Spanish version of the Michelin maps I was using. I don’t think these exist. When folded to fit into the little plastic pocket on my handlebar bag, the depth of the map, as I traveled almost due north, represented about 18 miles, an hour and a half at my average speed of 12 mph. The towns, on average, seemed to be about 12 miles apart, so I was beginning to judge my likely progress for the day on this basis. As I set out yesterday morning, catching today’s ferry seemed a possible but rather challenging target. However, I knew that it would be a good time to cross back into the UK because most people visiting France for the Easter weekend would travel back on Easter Monday. For this reason I had decided to go for the greatest possible distance yesterday, timing the trip to end up in a feasibly large town where I would almost certainly have no problem finding a hotel.

At 135 miles for the day and 8:35 in the evening, that town was St-Aubin-d’Aubigne. I walked casually into a bar and asked for directions to the nearest hotel. In a repeat of the previous evening’s response, my request was greeted with a shrug of the shoulders and open palms. The husband and wife owners of the bar then dug out their equivalent of ‘Yellow Pages’ and made some phone calls. By 9pm they had reserved me a room in what turned out to be a lovely Auberge in the centre of the town of Sens-de-Betagne. I headed out of St-Aubin-d’Aubigne on a major road, part of which was a mile long section of dual carriageway. It was getting dark, still windy, and then the clouds that had gradually become more threatening throughout the afternoon became precipitous and I had to pull over and don the waterproof trousers and overshoes once more.

When I arrived at the Auberge La Tourelle about 45 minutes later, the restaurant was very busy but I received a warm welcome and sat down to a very good dinner at 10pm. A bit late, but I had to wash down the Liquorice Allsorts with something!

4am start this morning, in the dark with the odd rain shower, but arrived in St Malo at 7:40, seven days, almost to the minute, after setting out from Barcelona. I upgraded to a Commodore cabin on the ferry for about £85 and looked forward to an enforced rest after 790 miles in the saddle.

After 790 miles in 7 days and 10 minutes, I arrived in Saint-Malo.

Feeling great – just another 100 or so to go tomorrow but think I could be getting wet!




Still suffering from wind

For months the sky had remained a depthless gray. Sometimes it rained, but mostly it was just dull, a land without shadows. It was like living inside Tupperware.
Bill Bryson, The Lost Continent – Travels in Small-town America.

Nothing to do with the food – there’s been a 10 to 20 mph NNE blowing all day. I’m heading roughly north, tacking from left to right as the roads dictate, so I’m heading right into it a lot of the time and then struggling to make 8 mph on the level. You become very sensitive to your surroundings under these conditions. When sheltered by a hill, a few trees, or buildings, making progress is very much easier. When I made a couple of navigation errors and had to retrace my tracks, all I had to do was steer – the wind did the rest. This morning the wind was compounded by a leaden sky, a cold, penetrating damp, temperatures around 6C, and the occasional shower. The Roman road out of Jonzac was long, straight and undulating. As much as I love my cycling, this was damned hard work. I was reminded of Bill Bryson’s description of typical British weather being like “living insde Tupperware” – but I think he was living in Yorkshire at the time, so what did he expect!

As I cycled through the Cognac region of France, under ‘Tupperware’ skies, it became
clear that the locals like to encourage young drinkers!
 

Head down and battling, I arrived in Sureges at 1pm, I stopped at a restaurant in the central square where I followed the biggest breakfast I’d had in years with an equally sumptuous lunch. The meal, a great steak and chips followed by cheese and coffee, set me back £10 and the bar owner offered me another free coffee as I was paying the bill. I tightened the cotter pin again, the chain wheel had stopped squeaking but had been clunking for the past 10 miles because it was too loose to squeak. I then bought some batteries for the lights, thinking I might just need them today.

As I came out of the restaurant, the sun came out from behind the clouds and stayed out all afternoon. The riding, a mixture of rolling hills and long flat sections, was much more pleasant but still very hard work.

One annoying habit of some (a minority) of French drivers is to ‘toot’ to warn cyclists of their presence. This is entirely unnecessary of course because if you cycle on roads you expect to be overtaken by cars. Most of the roads were built for them. What you are not expecting is a blast in your left ear from Citroen’s latest electro-acoustic innovation. In the wrong hands it could be lethal.

I set my sights on Pouzages as a target destination for the day. A quick Internet search on the iPhone showed that it had several hotels. When, at 7pm, I arrived in a small village 20 miles south of Pouzages I was out of energy, out of water, and out of food. I ate a big chocolate and nut bar (575 calories, it said on the label) drank a Coke and a coffee and topped up the water bottle. Twenty undulating miles later, with the sun already below the horizon but enough remaining light to see my way, I battled up the steepest hill of the whole trip to reach the “centre ville” of Pouzages. It’s clearly a place designed to keep out invaders. I stopped at the first hotel I found, a bar with rooms really, and checked in. The barman told me that they will be open until 2am but I know that the noise is not going to keep me awake. Tomorrow, there is no rain forecast but the morning temperature is going to be just above freezing and the NNE wind remains. It was a bad decision to leave my knee warmers at home!


Socks and drugs and Pomerol

 “A cold wind was blowing from the north, and it made the trees rustle like living things.”
George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones

Whilst in Toulouse, I added to my sock collection with a rather striking pair of calf-length, German hiking socks. I may not be allowed into all restaurants wearing them but I think they look rather snazzy with the Rapha 3/4 trousers. I had a late start yesterday (Tuesday) because I decided to try the nearest bike shop for a fix for my squeaky crank. I arrived at 9, only to find that the didn’t open until 10. Impatient, I decided to live with the problem and headed out of town. However, having missed breakfast, I stopped at a patisserie for a bun. Another bloke, buying his sandwiches, opened a conversation by commenting on the socks. I’m not entirely sure what he said, but it was friendly enough. I explained the small problem with the bike and he enthusiastically recommended a bike shop to sort it out – Velo Station. I rolled up, had a new cotter pin fitted in a few minutes and set out without the squeak – for 5 more minutes. It is the axle that’s worn, not the pin, but I think it will hold out.

It took the owner of Velo Station in Toulouse  just a few minutes to replace my cotter pin.
Unfortunately, it turned out that it was the axle that was worn, not the pin. Nevertheless, great service, with a smile.

The day was spent traveling about 90 miles along the Canal du Midi. It’s about 5 times the width of our canals and the typical boat is a big white-and-blue cabin cruiser. I saw a lot of them in the moorings near towns but during the whole day saw just 3 boats moving along the canal. At this time of year, it is staggeringly quiet. A handful of other cyclists, a similar number of anglers, and a few dog walkers – that was it. I cycled for miles without seeing another soul – often with vast apple orchards adjacent to the canal. The was some very light rain, but nothing of significance. I’d had no particular destination in mind when I set out – the original target had been Agen, but I knew I would go further. At 7:30pm I found the town of Aiguillon. I walked into the only hotel in town, La Terrasse de L’Etoile, and booked a demi-pension: dinner, B&B. A 3-course dinner with wine and coffee, a very nice room, plus free WiFi and breakfast, set me back £50.

La Terrasse de L’Etoile in Aiguillon: superb value and
very close to the Canal du Midi.

This morning, there was another 30 miles alongside the canal to La Reole, where I stopped for coffee to warm up – I don’t think that the temperature had risen above 7 degrees. The ‘Springwatch’ total for the canal was loads of coypu (which I’d originally thought were beavers – and are known as “little beavers” in some places), two cuckoos, quite a few herons, two green woodpeckers, one cormorant and a host of unidentifiable little brown birds.

North of La Reole are rolling hills and we’re back in wine country. I stopped in Sauverttere-de-Guyenne for a snack lunch and to make a few adjustments to the bike. I ‘d been suffering from some pain in both knees since yesterday morning and, whilst I am generally against drugs in sport, I succumbed to Ibuprofen to ease the pain. If this means a ten year disqualification from professional cycling, so be it. I’ve never done any anyway. On the way out of town I was flagged down by an enthusiastic Frenchman who explained that he owned owned a vintage Humber British bike with a 1926 Sturmey Archer hub on it. He also explained that Sturmey Archer enabled the first multi-geared bikes by introducing their original hub in 1904. Sometimes you find knowledge in the most unexpected places.

I continued cycling north, north-west. The wind was 5 to 10 mph north, north east. Not head-on but near enough to make things a bit challenging.

I tried to divert around Libourne by going through St Emillion then via the Pomerol vine plantations. However, I got lost, losing the best part of an hour in Libourne before getting back on route towards Montendre. Nice town. No hotels. Struggled another 12 miles north to Jonzach. Found a room immediately and ate very well here in the hotel. An English couple in the restaurant told me it’s due to be cold and wet for the next couple of days but 5 days into the trip, I’ve covered over 500 miles, including 110 today, so at least I’m ahead of plan.


A Mexican couple kindly took this photograph of myself and the ‘velo’ on the edge of Saint Emilion.
 It’s one very smart town with cobbled roads and is and surrounded by smart chateaux, including those that produce Pomerol.

Flamingos and beavers

 There is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Water Rat, Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

I’m not sure which is harder to use, a French keyboard or the one on this iPhone. I’m beginning to wish I’d brought an iPad for the blog. Excuse any typos, I’ll sort them out later.

Anyway, two days on and I’m now in the centre of Toulouse, showered, refreshed and enjoying dinner in an Italian restaurant next to my hotel. The Novotel Centre Wilson in Toulouse opened 8 weeks ago and has a very nice carpet (ideal for cleaning the canal path dust off bicycle tyres) and an impressive new marble floor. I attracted a few strange looks as I wheeled my “velo” inside and propped it against the reception desk. Suprisingly, they not only let me have a room but gave me a free upgrade to an executive one – by far the best I’ve stayed in so far.

Yesterday morning I headed north from St Cyprien hugging the coast whenever possible and dodging the trucks on the busier roads when there was no other viable route. The resorts north of St Cyprien were much smarter, St Cyprien itself resembling a run down version of Weymouth. Beyond these were some idyllic French villages – real holiday brochure stuff and very quaint. At one point I was amazed to see flocks of flamingoes on both sides of me as I rode across a causeway just south of Bages. In my ignorance, I’d always assumed that they were tropical birds. There were skylarks everywhere too.

As I turned west towards Carcassonne the ride was very different. The main road was a traffic nightmare so I made strenuous efforts to avoid it, taking minor roads, some of them pretty roughly surfaced, through vineyards. I did Fitou and Corbieres yesterday, and perhaps some others that were not labelled!

I arrived in Carcassonne having travelled another 90 miles. I spotted an Ibis hotel on the way in and checked in without a problem to one of the smallest rooms imaginable – the receptionist apologised in advance. Arriving back after dinner, I met the “Ryanair refugees” as they had dubbed themselves – a bunch of Irish guys with no good way home today because French air traffic controllers were enjoying one of their hobbies again, going in strike.

The problem with the bike’s right hand crank was getting worse. The securing nuts on the cotter pin were at least holding good, but the chain ring continued to wobble and squeak. I had no idea how long this could go on before something significant happened.

This morning, after only a minor unintended diversion, I found the path alongside the Canal du Midi.

The start of my ride along the Canal du Midi in Carcassonne

This would take me to today’s destination, Toulouse, just over 60 miles away. A relatively short run. The whole day’s riding was amazing – I saw no more than another ten cyclists until I reached the outskirts of Toulouse. I did see a nuthatch and a couple of beavers – the beavers being another first ever sighting for me. (They turned out to be coypu – seek later post.)

The only thing marring the day, apart from some drizzly rain for an hour, was the bike’s technical problem mentioned earlier. I considered taking it to a bike shop in Toulouse but the truth was that it’s the 61-year old axle that’s the problem, and no bike shop was going to have one of those in stock. I concluded that my best bet was to fill the space between the cotter pin and the crank with the hardest version of Araldite, or it’s French equivalent. After checking into the Novotel at 4pm I scoured the town centre for the aforementioned adhesive but came unstuck. I’ll have to try again tomorrow, when it’s due to rain.

A Spanish map has limitations when the road signs are in Catalan

I set out at 7:30am on Sunday morning and then had a very frustrating hour and a quarter trying to find my way out of Barcelona. All the carefully typed directions that made perfect sense on Saturday night looked like complete gibberish by Sunday and the Barcelona authorities seem to design road signs to confuse any potential enemy, rather than to provide useful information for the traveller.

After finding my way out of the city there were long, steady climbs to Sant Celoni and some more challenging ones In the hills just south of Girona. But it was not as challenging for me as for the young guy cycling up the the opposite side of the road with a rucksack on his back, a set of window blinds in one hand and a ladder balanced across his handlebars in the other!

The N2 road from Girona northwards was very busy with cars and trucks but has a wide shoulder in most places. Scenery ranged from spectacular wooded gorges to industrial grot and at one point I accidentally ended up on the A2 – where cyclists are not allowed, so had to walk back 800 yards or so along the drainage trench. However, feeling good, I decided to press on into France. I crossed the French border at 6pm, calling Sally while I was at the highest point in the climb over the Pyrenees in the busy town of El Perthus,

After a 5 mile descent, I turned right and headed for the coast, finding a room at the Hotel du Port in St Cyprien at about 7:45. I had covered 140 miles at an average speed of 12 mph and was ready for a bath and dinner.

L’Aquarium restaurant provided the latter – fish soup, turbot and creme caramel, washed down with a glass of rose and a dessert wine. I slept well!

The weather had been good all day, the temperature reaching about 25 C. The only problem with the bike was having to stop a couple it times to tighten a cotter pin on the right hand pedal crank. Somewhere along the way I need to find a fix for that. The search for a tube of blue Locktite starts today, but in not likely to find it cycling along the coast to Narbonne. Maybe when I turn left towards Carcassonne….