All Abroad – A Tour of East Anglia – Part 1

Eyebrows were raised when we announced that we were planning spend a couple of weeks sampling the delights of Norfolk and Suffolk. Comments were made on the lines of, “Isn’t that a bit flat?” and by implication, a bit boring too.

Well, there were a number of reasons for the choice. We hadn’t been to this part of England for several decades and in the case of Suffolk, not at all discounting the Harwich ferry. It sits semi-detached at the side of the weather map on telly every night, looking slightly neglected and sorry for itself. Surely it had something to offer? Unless we tried, we’d never find out.

Secondly it boasts its fair share of National Trust properties and our membership card is usually neglected and under-used; East Anglia seemed to offer the ideal opportunity to maximise its value for a change. And thirdly, the region is surprisingly accessible. An 07.59 train from Belper with a change at Nottingham deposited us, with bikes and panniers, in Ely, the start of our journey, just after 11.15. All this for the princely sum of just £6.50 in my case, thanks to the wonders of the Senior Rail Card.

Ely to Downham Market

For each day, I’d planned an itinerary and plotted a route on Ride With GPS, but before embarking, we couldn’t ignore Ely itself. Ely meant only one thing to me before our trip: the cathedral, the ‘Ship of the Fens’, so it seemed only right that we should head there straight away, particularly as the skies chose that particular moment to dump substantial buckets of water on us, a process which continued for most of the day.

The cathedral is dedicated to St Etheldreda who, on her wedding night, told her husband that she had taken a vow of virginity which must have come as a bit of a disappointment to him.

On arrival, we discovered that like most places in Ely, the cathedral is open to the visitor – but at a cost, in this case 9 quid. Unable to justify this for a fleeting visit we took it in turns to gaze upon the wonder of its vast and intricate ceiling, well worth the money we 20190508_114502didn’t pay to see it. As I swapped places with Val, I saw two ecclesiastical gentlemen just outside the entrance gazing at a lump of stone on the paving. It became rapidly obvious that this was a chunk of masonry, the size of a fist, which had fallen from the tower stretching above us. The conundrum was from whence it had come and what to do about it. The problem with a structure dating several centuries is that it is liable to surrender bits of itself to gravity at any given moment, and whilst the obvious solution was to shut the whole place down as a safety hazard, those £9.00’s are necessary to shore up what remains. I left them to grapple with this moral dilemma and met Val who told me that she’d been only feet away when the stonework landed. If it hadn’t have been raining, her tour might have ended before it began and I would have had to go on alone.

Next up was the Tourist Information Office which happily shared its accommodation with the house where Oliver Cromwell lived in the 1630’s. Unhappily this was a further £5.20 each so we forewent the opportunity of experiencing life in the 17th century, very much like Heanor in the 21st I imagine, as we did visits to the Stained Glass Museum (£4.50), The Old Gaol (£4.50) and, reluctantly given its tantalising title, the Museum of Fenland Drainage, featuring a Mirrless 5-cylinder blast injection engine (£3.00).

Our ultimate destination was Oxburgh Hall, an NT Elizabethan country house, but having wandered around the streets of Ely, we were behind schedule already, a delay exacerbated by driving rain, headwinds and the discovery that our Garmin 810 still had a USA road chip left inside it from our last trip. Thus for the next fortnight all we had to follow was an unwavering blue line but no background map against which to make sense of it. It’s a wonder we made it out of Cambridgeshire.

The low-lying fields, bordered by drainage ditches and punctured by the odd windmill, plus the abysmal weather, reminded me very much of the Netherlands. As if to complete the picture, we came across a cycling Dutchman whom we had met earlier, sheltering in the cathedral. He was on his way from ferry to ferry, Harwich to Hull, one of only two tourers that we met in the whole of our two weeks. We sent him on his way with firm instructions to avoid Scunthorpe at all costs.

By now we were feeling pretty miserable, a predicament made worse by my discovery that I’d left behind my trusty waterproof socks and could feel my shoes slowly filling up inside. Then, quite by accident, we came across the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust Centre at Welney. We gratefully accepted its sanctuary and heated toilets, but were disheartened to find that, thanks to the rain, the only birds visible through the viewing window were no more exotic than a tufted duck. The list of birds allegedly spotted earlier in the day numbered around 40 and including a widgeon, a gadwall, a garganey, a Cetti’s Warbler and a turnstone. I couldn’t help wonder if they weren’t making some of these up but the warden was very excited about a bar-tailed godwit, which is apparently similar to a whimbrel. I tried to humour him but eventually gave it up as a bad job; my heart simply wasn’t in it.

When we discovered that, thanks to the absence of Garmin road maps, we were travelling in the opposite direction to Oxburgh Hall, leaving us only ten minutes before it closed, we decided to accept our fate and head for the night’s campsite. I never book a campsite in advance, finding that, by and large, no campsite will turn a cyclist away, but it is in fact becoming increasingly difficult to find actual campsites not given over exclusively to caravans and motorhomes whose owners are prepared to pay more, and with supplements for electricity. Despite the name, the Grange Park Touring Park no longer accepts tourers of any description, but fortunately the sight of two bedraggled cyclists was enough to melt the heart of even the stoniest caravan store owner and so it was that we spent the night as the only campers on a virtually deserted site for the most expensive fee of the trip, a frankly extortionate price of £22.00 plus 50p each for a shower! Irked by the pettiness of the shower charge and the provision of one toilet key between us, I did find the hand-dryers made excellent warmers for saturated shoes, and the disabled toilets, being centrally-heated, ensured our clothes were both dry and warm by the morning. Maybe we did get our money’s worth after all.

Downham Market to Burnham Market

Having failed to make it to Oxburgh Hall, we added it as the next item on the agenda , but like most NT properties, it doesn’t open till 10.30, putting pressure on an already crowded schedule. Oxburgh Hall is a 15thC moated manor house built thanks to a ‘licence to crenellate’. This turned out to be a sort of mediaeval planning consent; no-one in the 15thC was allowed to fortify their property without specific permission of the king lest they be suspected of ambitions above their status.

Chief attractions of Oxburgh Hall included tapestries woven by Mary Q of S and our very own Bess of Hardwick plus a priest-hole, a hiding place for when Henry VIII’s heavies came a-calling (in the middle above). This one was open to exploration by anyone gullible and stupid enough to try the experience. As I lowered myself into it, I couldn’t help but recall the single occasion on which I had sampled caving and vowed never to repeat the ordeal again. The bottom of the hole led to an exit above so the whole thing resembled a U-bend, though quite what that made me in this analogy I’m not quite sure. The priest-hole at the other end was the size of a portaloo which it resembled in having no windows but so far as I could see no portaloo either. In fact without access to light or Radio 4, I doubted the priest’s capacity to remain there very long. I found the undignified experience of trying to return to the land of the living more contorted and humiliating than the original journey.

We made it as far as Swaffham by lunch and proceeded northwards on the Peddars Way, said to be on the route of a Roman road leading all the way north to Hunstanton. Although billed as a cycling route, it displayed an alarming tendency to revert to its pre-Roman existence as a dirt track and was quickly abandoned.

We diverted to Castle Acre, a former Norman fortified town, boasting not only one of the largest and best preserved monastic sites in England dating back to 1090, but also one of the most extensive examples of a motte and bailey castle I’ve ever seen, quite a combination. The monastery was a Cluniac (Benedictine) priory which I was interested to note had included amongst its one-time relics the left arm of Saint Philip. Whether Saint Philip realised the priory was holding his left arm was not explained. St Philip is the patron saint of hatters; I have no idea why.

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The castle extended over many acres (hence the name presumably) and, despite being English Heritage, was free. We explored at length but found no trace of any other bits of Saint Philip. I would thoroughly recommend Castle Acre to any Norfolk tourist; you will not be disappointed.

The day had not yet run out of marvels to delight us. Again quite by chance, we stumbled across the church of St Lawrence at Harpley. St Lawrence was unusually born in Valencia and became the archdeacon of Pope Sixtus the Second (it might have been Pope Secundus the Sixth) put to death by Emperor Valerian. He is the one who, legend has it, being roasted on a gridiron over hot coals, requested to be turned over as he was ‘done on this side’. What a card he must have been, always ready with the merry quip. He is the patron saint of cooks and stand-up comics for obvious reasons.

The villages of North Norfolk are many and numerous and each of them features at least one church. To find an open church to explore in Derbyshire is a rarity but in Norfolk, nearly every one is unlocked and welcoming to the public. It is reassuring that even in these calamitous times, there is a part of England where this is still possible. There are over 650 Norfolk churches, more than any other county, nearly all built according to the same Norman model, cruciform with a square tower at one end, but each is uniquely individual, which makes them such a joy to investigate.

20190509_155707Harpley is one of the highest villages in Norfolk, which is admittedly not saying a lot, and its church is noted for its wooden ceiling studded with carvings of angels and pews adorned with carvings of creatures, actual and mythical. One half of the church was having its floor renewed, its predecessor having succumbed to centuries of rot. Sadly some of the centuries-old pews, having been ripped out, were literally irreplaceable. St Lawrence was, it seems, a particularly benighted church because we were told that it had suffered no fewer than four lead thefts from its roof in recent times.

I couldn’t help reflecting on the cost of all this and where the money was coming from to pay for it, which led to questions of whether it was worth it, given the sparseness (I’m guessing) of the congregation attending the services. Being an old romantic at heart – or maybe just old – I hope such monuments to history can survive for the essence of the English countryside must surely include the distant glimpse of its church spires and towers.

Our campsite at Market Downham was one of the best of the trip. Purpose-built quite recently, the complex has had a lot spent on it. The office served as a tourist centre with books and maps for purchase and adjoined a hostel. The showers were the most sumptuous we have encountered, being a series of rooms either side of a centrally-heated corridor, each containing its own toilet, wash basin and wet room shower.

Market Burnham to Sheringham

Having reached the north coast, we adopted an easterly direction, but our departure was (un)avoidably delayed by one of us (clue: it wasn’t me) losing the key to the bike lock. This was potentially a serious matter, since we’d left the bolt cutters behind. A frantic search of our meagre belongings failed to unearth the key so I was dispatched to the pub where we’d had a meal the previous evening in a possible quest to retrieve it. Normally I would be only too eager to visit a pub but this one was over a mile away. It was with a heavy heart that I started to trudge pubward, only thankfully to be recalled by a yell of triumph as the key turned up in the pocket of the tent rolled up and ready to go. Oh how I laughed.

Nor far from Market Burnham is Burnham Thorpe, the birthplace of Horatio Nelson, the archetypal British (English) hero. However the vicarage where he was born has long been torn down and all that remains to mark the event is a plaque. We didn’t stray but did pass through the floridly-monickered Burnham Overy Staithe where Nelson learned to row. He was only five foot five inches – Napoleon at five foot six was actually taller – and lived at one time at 7 Savile Row on the roof of which the Beatles gave their final concert, though not at the same time.

I have frequently been struck by how many famous people have been the offspring of clergy, usually Protestant for obvious but not exclusive reasons: Matthew Arnold, Jane Austen, Joan Baez, Robert Baden-Powell, John Logie Baird, Ingmar Bergman, the Bronte sisters, Gordon Brown, John Buchan, Lewis Carroll, Nat King Cole, Sam Cooke, Alice Cooper – and that’s just the first three letters of the alphabet.

Stately Home of the Day was not in fact an NT property. It was Holkham Hall, home to this day of the Earl of Leicester. This was frankly a bit of a disappointment, the house itself rather grey and drab despite being built in Italian Renaissance style after the first Earl of Leicester came back from his holidays. However we were allowed to cycle through the sweeping estate free of charge so I won’t be too harsh. We reached one of two 24 metre high obelisks standing at either end of the grounds.

On the opposite side of the road to the Hall was our first proper Norfolk beach, Holkham Bay where Gwyneth Paltrow wandered during Shakespeare in Love before selflessly devoting her life to Gloop. I confess that I don’t actually remember that bit of the film and therefore why she was awandering.

Holkham Beach is NT but since it’s free to all, I felt a bit cheated. What’s the point of me shelling out every year if they allow everybody? It is undeniably stunning as the boardwalk path leads you through pine woods before suddenly before opening out upon acres of pure, untrammelled mud. In desperate search of something a bit more, well, sandy, I set off on my bike towards the distant tide-line and was rewarded with sweeping, unspoilt golden sands to either side. It was almost worth getting bogged down in the mud and having to clean sand out of unknown crevices of my bike for days afterwards.

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A few miles down the coast was Wells-Next-the-Sea. It being well past lunchtime (three o’clock actually), we explored the high street to find that many of the shops at Wells are owned by the same man, Arthur Howell. Although less well celebrated are Arthur Howell’s Abattoir and Arthur Howell’s Gun Shop, the Arthur Howell empire includes his Delicatessen, his Butcher’s, his Fishmongery and, best of all, Arthur Howell’s Bakery. This had an extraordinary range of cakes of the sort close to every cyclist’s heart at very reasonable prices. We kept ourselves going for three days on chocolate-coated flapjack, chocolate-coated millionaire’s shortbread and chocolate-coated oaties. I think you’ve probably worked out the secret of Arthur’s success by now.

On our way to Blakeney and Sheringham, we saw in the distance the church of Stiffkey. Time (and the fact that a hill separated us) prevented a visit but it is worth mentioning this church not because of anything noteworthy about the building, but because of a former rector, Rev Harold Davidson who had a remarkable career. Firstly he suffered the ignominy of being defrocked by the Bishop of Norwich having dedicated himself to saving fallen women a little too conscientiously, adopting a hands-on approach. As any disgraced clergyman would, he then resumed an earlier career as a showman in Blackpool where his act included freezing himself in a refrigerated chamber for which he was (unsuccessfully) prosecuted for attempted suicide. He met an untimely end when, appearing in a fairground lion’s cage, he stood on a lion’s tail and failed to survive the subsequent mauling. Let that be a lesson to us all.

Our accommodation plans envisaged two nights camping followed by a night under a roof of some sort, partly out of necessity, i.e. the need to recharge various electronic devices; between us we needed to maintain two mobile phones, two Garmin watches, a Garmin bike computer, not to mention front and rear lights. Campsites simply do not cater for these needs. Fortunately Sheringham does have one of three Youth Hostels remaining in the county, largely reminiscent of the by-gone age of youth hostels. Replete after a YHA evening meal, we wandered down to the shore to find, as often with North Norfolk towns, an apparently thriving high street largely devoid of chain shops and therefore still retaining its individuality. Much of it seemed still stuck in the sixties but somehow this was in keeping with the atmosphere of the place.

Sheringham to Norwich

Our itinerary took an idiosyncratic swerve here as we headed due south to Norwich. This was partly because neither of us had actually visited the city and it was an omission we wanted to correct, but partly because Blickling Hall, yes, you’ve guessed it a National Trust property, lay on the route.

Blickling Hall is one of the putative birthplaces of Anne Boleyn whose ghost is said to wander the place – although, according to Stanley Holloway, it is the Tower of London that she wanders ‘with her head tucked underneath her arm’. Perhaps it’s a job-share arrangement. The building itself is a magnificent Jacobean affair and all rooms are overseen by volunteers without whose unstinting efforts the NT would not survive. Each of them is allocated a room and is only too keen to impart their nuggets of wisdom. The problem is that you can end up politely listening to the same story you heard in the previous room and trying to extricate yourself without offending. Val and I spent getting on for ten minutes listening to an enthusiastic description of another property from one guide despite the fact that we had no intention of visiting it. How very British. Still I did learn from a man dressed as a butler that the word butler derives from the French for bottle, which I have to confess had never occurred to me before. Obvious now it’s pointed out.

We were hoping to enter Norwich by another bike trail, Marriott’s Way, but before we found the start of it, we visited Reepham (‘Reefam’) which, apart from featuring a network of 18th century buildings, streets and alleys, is remarkable for having three churches sharing the same churchyard, all in different parishes. The only remaining evidence of All Saints, Hackford, said to have suffered a fire in 1546, is a wall, but St Mary’s, Reepham and St Michael’s, Whitwell still stand as operational churches to this day and, having been built alongside each other, are now connected.

As we approached the church, we were assailed by the sound of a choir but not a choir singing the usual selection of hymns; this one was singing Rock around the Clock. Inside we were treated – and I think the performance merited that description – to various songs that had some fleeting religious connection: Say A Little Prayer, I’m A Believer, you get the drift. You can probably think of some more when the conversation lags after the Queen’s Speech next Christmas.

Marriott’s Way runs nearly 25 miles being named after the chief engineer of the Midland and Great Northern Railway which ran the two railway lines forming the route of the trail before their closure in 1959.

Starting at Reepham station, the path surface varied from earth through compacted gravel to tarmac, noticeably improving as Norwich approached. This was probably the most enjoyable cycling day of the tour. Earlier in the day, we had cycled along minor roads barely wide enough to accommodate a single car of which there was thankfully little evidence, through small villages and fields of wheat, barley and potatoes. East Anglia produces two-thirds of England’s sugar beet, one third of its potatoes and enough wheat for over 5 billion loaves. That’s a lot of toast.

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Incidentally if you thought from these photos that we were basking in the warmth of the springtime Norfolk sunshine, you are mistaken. There is a jarring inconsistency between the blue skies in these photos and the layers of clothing we are wearing, because when the rain stopped it was replaced by a week’s worth of bitingly cold wind, usually coming from the direction we were cycling into, making every day a three-layer day at least.

Until perhaps a mile from Norwich’s centre we were still cycling though the green of the countryside and it was almost a surprise when Marriott’s Way suddenly ended and we found ourselves disgorged into the city centre. As usual, we were so far behind schedule that there was time only to seek out the nearest campsite. Strangely enough I thought I’d found one in the centre itself, a short distance from the cathedral, but, although both Google and Ride with GPS assured me of its existence, it was nowhere to be found; in fact, the location was supposedly on a cobbled street which seemed less than likely. Fortunately there was another site only a few miles outside the centre, at Whitlingham Broad, where we were perhaps one of half a dozen campers occupying a flat site the size of several football pitches ringed by unoccupied yurts.

Norwich to Cromer

Having travelled so far south to Norwich, it seemed perverse to return to a point only a few miles east of where we’d started the previous day, but that’s the beauty of organising your own tour: you can go where you like when you like and there’s no-one to tell you otherwise.

We didn’t really do justice to Norwich; time allowed only for a cursory view of the cathedral and its mediaeval surroundings before we had to set off on a circuitous route to Cromer. Our intention was to ‘do’ the Broads, passing through Wroxham, the so-called Capital of the Broads, but first we cycled through the otherwise unremarkable village of Ranworth and made the discovery of the trip, the superlative ‘Cathedral of the Broads’, the church dedicated to St Helen, the mother of Emperor Constantine.

The exterior of the church is striking enough, and maintained the extraordinarily high standard throughout Norfolk in villages often able to support grandiose churches far beyond what would be expected of a small community thanks to wealth once generated by the wool trade. However the true treasures of St Helen’s were to be found inside. The enormous tower allowed the intrepid visitor to climb its 89 steep, narrow steps to the top; the proportions of the staircase meant I had to yell up before starting your ascent because there was only room for one climber at a time. Even before the top, I had to clamber past the bells up two rickety ladders and push open a trapdoor but was rewarded with an incomparable view encompassing miles of lush Norfolk countryside spread out below like a baize table-cloth, interspersed with broads dotted with small boats and yachts.

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On my return to terra firma, I examined a mediaeval Antiphoner, a sort of book of service dating from the 15th century or earlier. Its 285 vellum sheets contained prayers and music for psalms, each superbly illustrated and decorated with ornamental Latin script (see below). The book had to be kept in a humidity-controlled box beneath bullet-proof glass covered with a cloth to prevent fading.

20190512_132648As if these were not riches enough, the screen in front of the chancel is said to be the finest painted example in England. It is divided into panels devoted to various saints, each of whose faces had been rubbed out by people touching them repeatedly over the centuries. These saints included Saint Margaret of Antioch, one of my favourites. She was persecuted by the Emperor Diocletian in the 4th Century because she refused to renounce her Christianity. Amongst the trials she underwent was to be fed to Satan in the form of a dragon who spat her out when he choked on the cross she was carrying. Despite having survived being devoured by a dragon, Margaret was eventually beheaded, but went on to achieve success as one of the saints who spoke to Joan of Arc. Her left hand is displayed on her saint’s day by the church of Saint Mary in Cairo – what is it with these appendages of saints? She is the patron saint of pregnant women.

If this was the sublime, it did not take us long to encounter the ridiculous in the form of Wroxham. The queues of traffic both in and out of the place told their own story. If Ranworth was the Cathedral of the Broads, Wroxham must be its Blackpool as evidenced by a succession of tacky shops full of tourist tat thronged with multitudinous hordes all eager for the ‘shopping experience’ on offer. Give me Satan in the form of a dragon any day.

20190512_173743We made enquiries at a campsite outside Cromer. The prospect of a night under canvas seemed unlikely as I made my way up the garden path to the rather genteel B&B at Shrublands Farm, Northrepps, but I was directed to take the road opposite, and half a mile later appeared two fields with not a single, solitary tent in them. Only the toilet block confirmed that this was to be our night’s resting place, and all for just £14.00. This was our ideal campsite where the risk of disturbance from night-time revellers and noisome children was completely absent (Sartre may have defined Hell as being other people but I think it’s actually other people’s children).

The spot that we chose was halfway up a long field leading to a wood through which the morning sun streamed. We were loath to leave the next day.

Before we crawled in for the night, we paid a visit to Cromer, out of curiosity and hunger. Compensation for the meagre choice of eateries on offer lay in the form of the pier (Pier of the Year 2015! – rather less celebrated than Kym Marsh and Daniel Radcliffe(?) who won Rear of the Year 2015) and a series of striking murals on the sea-front from which I learned that Arthur Conan Doyle came to Cromer on a golfing holiday and supposedly based Baskerville Hall on Cromer Hall. A less likely resident was Oscar Wilde who lived at the Hotel de Paris in Cromer in the early 1890’s; I like to think that somewhere in Paris there stands a Hotel de Cromer, but I somehow doubt it.

(To be continued…..)

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Norfolk and Suffolk – May 2019

You probably thought with some relief that, once we’d completed Seattle to Boston in 2018, that would be the last you’d hear from me (although WordPress tells me that someone at least was still, presumably voluntarily, reading the blog as recently as last month). Well this is something by way of an experiment. 41 of you were foolish to sign up for emails alerting you as to when the next instalment was due to ‘drop’, so it follows that you should also receive an alert about our recently completed trip closer to home as well.

In May, we spent two weeks travelling round Norfolk, Suffolk and for reasons still not quite apparent, Essex as well. We were largely under canvass and the privations of camping made it difficult to maintain a blog. I did keep notes as we progressed and when we got back I had every intention of converting these into an article for the Derby cycling club magazine. The appalling weather of the past few days has given me the ideal opportunity to put these good intentions into action.

I did find that, once I’d started, it was difficult to stop so I managed to stretch the first five days of our trip into nearly 5,000 words. The subscribers to the magazine are a select bunch so it occurred to me that, if anyone was interested, they could read the first part of the article here, and if they aren’t, they can find something more useful to do with their time. If readers of the magazine want to wait till they receive the article in printed form through the post, that’s obviously perfectly fine too.

In the next couple of days, I’ll post the article and follow it up with the second and hopefully concluding part when the next batch of bad weather hits Derbyshire. This will probably not be too far in the future.

C2C Day 52: Boston – 86.7km, 366m (Cum: 5,894km, 29,573m)

We spent approximately half of our final journey into Boston riding on smooth-surfaced, busy bike paths passing through leafy corridors, even discovering a couple of large boulders just begging for an orienteering control to be hung from them:

The trail that we were following was called the Revolution Trail and it was made all too obvious which revolution they were talking about, especially when we arrived in Lexington. We had only a few minutes to pay a call to the Visitors’ Centre outside of which was the very green, Battle Green, where the first shots of the American War of Independence were fired by the British on 19th April 1775.

There was lots to see here but no time to see it in. On we went, passing through, but not pausing at, Cambridge, home to Harvard and the MIT .

We arrived only a little late outside the agreed point of rendezvous, JFK’s birthplace, a relatively modest affair for a man with his background:

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Then it was off, all 22 of us travelling the next nine miles in convoy. Despite my expectations that the whole shebang would disintegrate into a disorganised rabble, our cavalcade of cyclists remained largely cohesive. For the first part of the ride, this was because our route coincided with a massive traffic re-organisation scheme resulting in whole sections of  road being shut off to motor vehicles with police cops at every junction. It was like being in a royal procession as we rode unhindered through the traffic cones.

Even when this section ended and we found ourselves amongst the cars once again, we discovered that by assertive cycling, we could run through red lights unimpeded as motorists goggled at the geriatric vision of yellow and orange that reeled before their eyes.

Every now and again, we juddered to a stop at some Boston landmark: Fenway Park, the Red Sox’ stadium:

This quartet were all members of the Red Sox in the forties.

One of them is Dom DiMaggio, the brother of the more celebrated Joe; it may be the man on the right who played wearing glasses. There aren’t many spectacled sportsmen I can think of, ignoring snooker players: Navratilova and Billie Jean King, and Clive Lloyd.

We stopped outside the bar that inspired the TV series Cheers. I don’t think I ever saw a single episode.

The statue of Samuel Adams, revolutionary and signatory of the Declaration of Independence, seemed to have particular significance for Americans as they all queued to be photographed in front of him; the Brits politely declined.

We walked alongside Faneuil Hall, an historic covered marketplace where people literally gasped and stood open-jawed in amazement that we’d crossed the country on bicycles:

Finally we arrived at the harbour but found the gate to the water locked. An unsuspecting key-holder was propositioned and badgered into allowing us to ‘dip our wheels’ into the Atlantic, the traditional method of signifying the end of a coast to coast:

It only remained for us all to reach our hotel where the champagne was broken open and liberally quaffed:

This was followed shortly after by the official group photo and ones with individuals like ourselves.

We have completed 5,894 kilometres (3,662 miles) and climbed 29,573 metres (97,024 feet) over 52 cycling days, at an average of 113 kilometres (70.4 miles) and 568 metres (1,865 feet) per day.

The feeling now is one of relief. The significance of the achievement will not sink in for several days. Our bodies have propelled us forward for over eight weeks whilst our minds have constantly repeated that we’re crazy. Each day we have launched ourselves on a further journey into the unknown, for all of what we have seen and experienced, Niagara apart, has been a completely fresh adventure. It has been like having a blank page slowly filled each day with new exploits and memories. But the result of this is, not exhaustion, but certainly extreme tiredness, and it is only now that we can really relax.

Did I say relax? Well, not quite yet because we are not due to return to the UK until next Wednesday. When we were preparing for this trip, I knew that we would need some time to recover, but equally, that being in Boston was an opportunity that may not be repeated. Accordingly, we have booked on Friday to take the ferry to the northern tip of Cape Cod. We will cycle once again down the peninsula and across to Falmouth when we will cross to Martha’s Vineyard, looking out for the beach and other places where they filmed ‘Jaws’ (the astute amongst you will have recognised that the tagline ‘This time it’s personal’ is from Jaws 2). We will cycle to Plymouth where the Pilgrim Fathers landed, before catching the train back to Boston.

That will be it for long-distance cycling for a while – but there are rumours of another cross-country trip in 2021, to honour Bill’s ninetieth birthday and possibly the fact that he completed over 95% of this one, only forgoing the steepest climbs. We remain in awe of and salute him.

A few thank yous.

Thanks to Kate for posting the blog and photos when, more often than it should have, the internet failed us.

Thanks to Val who was usually to be found washing my socks whilst I hammered at the keyboard and for being my ever-present companion, except on hills.

Thanks to Rick, the tour leader, and Bill and Annie, the co-drivers of the support vehicle even though they will never read this, I hope.

And thanks to you for your interest, encouragement and comments; the blog would have been a lonelier place without you. I set out to write 52 days of drivel and succeeded. I apologise for the many inaccuracies arising from the inadequacy of the time needed to check my facts and for those times when inspiration deserted at the end of a day when little happened or I was too tired to record it. Together we made it through to the end.

See you all back in England.

C2C Day 51: Brattleboro, Vermont, to Nashua, New Hampshire – 116.6km, 1,162m (Cum: 5,807.40km, 29,289m)

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When we were in Brattleboro Visitors’ Centre, there was a cardboard cut-out of Kevin Bacon wearing an ‘I love Brattleboro’ sweatshirt. I meant to ask the connection between the two (although, because of the number of films he’s been in, you are supposed to be able to trace any actor to Kevin Bacon in six moves), but forgot. Well, I’ve just found out that Brattleboro has an annual Baconfest celebrating all things bacon, and in 2014, they invited Kevin but he was probably too busy advertising EE and posted a Twitter video excusing himself.

We have stayed in every type of hotel and motel from the scummy to the luxurious. Tonight’s hotel, the Radisson, falls at the ritzier end of the scale and fancies itself a bit of a castle with roof-top crenellations (which may be why it justifies not providing a fridge). Last night’s motel was at the other extreme: the Econo Lodge. The very name says, ‘we are cheap and aim for the barely adequate’. It achieved it. Still, generally the standard has been higher than on Route 66, and we had congratulated ourselves on at least avoiding staying at a motel where there had been  a murder earlier in the year, as happened last time.

Well, that may have lasted only until last night, because when the Five O’clock Club arrived in Brattleboro (much earlier than us), they found the motel swarming with police as someone had been found in one of the rooms, believed to have succumbed to an over-dose of heroin. It goes to show that, for all its veneer of opulence and respectability, there is a darker side to New England. In 2014, the New York Times ran an article with the headline, ‘Heroin Scourge Overtakes a ‘Quaint’ Vermont Town’, and that referred to our previous night’s resting-place, Bennington. On that cheery note, we’ll move on.

Today was heralded as the sting in the tail of the tour as a 71 mile day combined with 3,000 feet of climb in conditions of overwhelming mid-thirties heat. We set the alarm for 05.30, but the Five O’clock Club had set theirs even earlier so we were still one of the last to leave. There is evident benefit in this strategy as, at this time of the day, the temperatures are still in the low twenties and, this morning, there was mist over the river.

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We covered four states today, leaving Vermont and entering New Hampshire before veering into Massachusetts and swerving back again, making eleven all told, plus one Canadian province.

Almost immediately on entering New Hampshire, there was a sign for an NH liquor store. It seems the sale of alcohol is restricted in New Hampshire. Wine and beer can be bought in groceries which includes supermarkets but liquor (more than 6% alcohol) can only be bought at state-run stores. Apparently there are still 17 states which retain control over the sale of liquor, a throwback to the Prohibition era. A home brewer in New Hampshire is restricted to 100 gallons (or 200 if a couple)!

When we started out, most of the history was concerned with the early 19th Century as Lewis and Clark forged their way west, but now we’re in New England, the clock has been turned back fifty years and nothing is worth considering unless it has a 17- at the beginning. In Fitzwilliam, we came across this elm tree, accompanied by a plaque which explained that this had replaced the original, dubbed the ‘Liberty Tree’ in protest at the hated British stamp tax. “In August 1775, as a last act of violence prior to their evacuation of Boston, British soldiers cut it down  because it bore the name ‘Liberty'”.  The British behaving like hooligans abroad? That would never happen.

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Every village has its steepled church in white and its houses in the colonialist revival style:

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Although we completed today’s ride in good time, the temperature had started to rise and by early afternoon, it was in the mid-thirties and suffocating. Our hotel was some distance to the south of Nashua and the heat made sight-seeing prohibitively uncomfortable so we opted for an ice-cold coffee and an uncharacteristically early finish.

Tomorrow, we ride into Boston for the final leg. In theory, everyone will congregate at JFK’s birth-place about nine miles out, regardless of when they set out, but the Five O’clock Club are restless. If they had their way, the meeting would be earlier still, even though to arrive at the rendezvous we have to travel 42 miles from the hotel, the last part of it along a busy city bike trail. Realistically, we are going to need five hours of cycling to take account of unforeseen eventualities, meaning a 06.30 start.

Assuming all 22 manage to link up at 11.30, we then have to negotiate our way collectively past nine landmarks including Harvard, the Boston Red Sox’s ground, Paul Revere’s house and the site where the US Constitution is held. It’ll be a miracle if we arrive at our final hotel by 13.45, the agreed time for a group photo.

At Happy Hour tonight, someone had composed a song which included all of the 51 (I think) places we have stayed at and I realised that even now, I can’t even remember anything about Monticello, Clare and Simcoe. Soon it  will be a memory, but at least this blog will serve as a reminder, which is part of its purpose.

We’ll finish today with the birthday girl herself engaged in her favourite occupation, climbing a hill.

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C2C Day 50: Bennington, VT, to Brattleboro, VT – 94.60km, 1,197m (Cum: 5,690.80km, 28,127m)

Val’s friend, Angela, has emailed her to say that she’s only up to Day 19, and can we cycle a bit slower! It’s a bit late, Angela, and at this rate, it’ll be Christmas before you reach this bit anyway. It would be easier if you read faster.

The cat at the top appears in Bennington and is labelled ‘Catitude’. Which reminds me that yesterday, we passed a sandwich shop called ‘Subs-Ta-Toot’.

Sometimes, it’s only when  we’ve been through an area that we find out something we would have visited had we known sooner. We were told that the cemetery to the Old First Church at Bennington contains the grave of the poet, Robert Frost. When we were married, one of Val’s friends bought us a photograph of a forest covered in snow with the oft-quoted lines, “The woods are lovely, dark and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep. But, even so, we weren’t going to go back up the hill – it’s not as if he was Butch Cassidy.

Today delivered on the promised climb, at 1,197 metres, the most we’ve done since Glacier National Park, Montana on Day 12. Not for nothing is this the Green Mountain state. Unlike yesterday, when the climb came in spurts, we had one big hill early on between Bennington and Wilmington, and then a mini-peak around half-way, but neither of them troubled us unduly, the result of eight weeks’ hard work.

It is only right that we mark the occasion with the return of a photo of Val climbing a hill:

Before we started the first climb, we passed the Appalachian Trail, five miles out of Bennington, an anonymous crossing of the road marked only by a sign warning of walkers. The Appalachian Trail is the longest hiking-only trail in the world at 2,190 miles and those travelling south to north are here nearing the end at Mount Katahdin in Maine. There’s a good book on walking the trail, Balancing the Blue by an Englishman, Keith Fossett if you can overlook the sometimes juvenile sense of humour and idiosyncrasies (and this is me talking). He mentions that it is the custom for local people to drive to crossing points to leave supplies for trekkers, a practice confirmed by the spaghetti house in town. The Trail takes about six months to complete whilst we’ve taken two months (nearly) to complete a crossing of eleven States so I think I’ll stick to cycling whilst I can.

Of all the states so far, I think Vermont is the one I’d like to explore further. Looking at a map of the estate, we are at the very south extremity of land that stretches 160 miles to the north – although it could be that all of New England is as good. Everywhere we have cycled today has been brilliantly green, whether it be thick forest or deep valleys:

We passed many well-appointed houses today, and were told that these are the second homes, weekend retreats, of wealthy New-Yorkers. We saw the evidence of this yesterday when as we cycled through Hoosick on leaving New York state just after mid-day. There was a huge traffic jam, like Scarborough on a Bank Holiday weekend, as cars returned to the city, slowed by the single traffic light in the centre of town.

In the museum we visited yesterday, there was a section on covered bridges in New England, of which only around 100 hundred survive despite there being at one time over a thousand. We saw two of them today:

By the time we arrived in Brattleboro, it was lunchtime and the temperature was into the thirties. Nevertheless, I googled the visitors’ centre and we cycled to the address given. This turned out to be an ordinary house and the owner of the property was as surprised as we were to find out that she’d been a victim of a Google mistake. We did find the genuine centre and were given a number of options to spend the afternoon pursuing.

The first two involved a trip of another eight miles deep into the Vermont forest. I didn’t tell Val it would be uphill but I think she suspected something was up when we turned on to Black Mountain Road. We found ourselves once again battling an uphill gravel track – it really wouldn’t have been the same if we hadn’t had the chance to curse this once again. It was worth it though as we found Scott Farm, devoted to growing more than 160 varieties of apple as well as other fruit. There was no-one about so I wandered around until I found a dry-stone waller busily engaged; he was responsible for this on the left:

Meanwhile Val found other personnel sheltering from the heat in the cooler and we bought two peaches and apples – Yellow Transparent, the second to crop of the season. We swapped tales of our favourite varieties – there’s no bore like an apple bore – and took away recommendations for Strawberry Chenango, Red Astrakhan and Dolgo crab apple.

On the way back we passed Naulakha, Rudyard Kipling’s house:

I didn’t know Kipling lived in America, but it turns out he married an American and lived on his wife’s family estate in Vermont where he wrote The Jungle Book and Just So Stories. He abandoned the house when his first child died at the age of six, returning to London.

We completed the afternoon with a tour of the ‘hotch-potch’ of Brattleboro’s Main Street buildings including this 1861 (‘Italianate Revival’) building built by a shoemaker. The plaque at the top cost $12,000 and, being made out of bronze, required multiple teams of oxen to haul it from the station:

We finish with a sighting of the Loch Ness Monster. No wonder they can never find it in Scotland:

(PS Don’t forget tomorrow is Val’s birthday).

C2C Day 49: Latham, New York, to Bennington, Vermont – 80.00km, 814m (Cum: 5,596.20km, 26,930m)

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We started today on the trail we finished on last night. Although nominally still the Erie Canal path, it had ceased to follow the canal and was obviously on the course of an old railway line, but it was at least tarmacked. We were just north of Albany, the state capital, and although it was just after eight on a Sunday morning, the trail was alive with cyclists and runners; it was good to see it so well-used.

Today was a short day, because of the scarcity of hotels along our route so we had more time to spend in places we would normally have rushed through. There were few towns along the way, but the most substantial until Bennington was Cohoes (‘Quehose’). We were the only ones who chose to tarry here, first of all riding down its main street to admire various old buildings. Cohoes is evidently undergoing a make-over, an initiative from the mayor, and all the streets looked clean, sparkly and litter–free, a sight you will be familiar with unless you live in Britain. This building was undergoing a face-lift:

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The Visitors’ Centre was shut on a Sunday but we were advised by a local – one who actually knew what his town had to offer for a change – to head north to Cohoes Falls. So we did.

Cohoes used to be known as Spindle City because of its textiles industry, processing cotton from the Deep South in its many mills, all now of course closed. We passed several of them on our way up and found that, rather than being allowed to deteriorate, they had been renovated and transformed into smart, trendy Loft Apartments:

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If only someone would do a similar service for the East Mill in Belper…

We have come to treat the word ‘falls’ with suspicion as it can mean anything from a Niagara cataract to some creek bubbling over a few stones, but Cohoes’ Falls definitely fell into the former category. We were completely unprepared for the spectacular sight that greeted us as we followed a single arrow indicating the whereabouts of the waterfall:

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This is 300 metres wide and 55 metres high (Horseshoe Falls, Niagara, is 820 metres wide but only 51 metres high). We were fortunate indeed because we were told that at this time of year, the falls are normally not much more than a trickle and you can walk along the river bed to see them. However there has been much rain in North-East US – and a tornado in Massachusetts – in recent weeks (so we have been doubly lucky because we have missed it), so the waters of the Mohawk river are swollen and the result breath-taking.

A panel told us that blueback herring leave their normal salt-water habitat to swim up the canal before spawning in the Mohawk and returning to the ocean via the Falls (or more sensibly, the fish passage). I thought it was only lemmings that threw themselves off cliffs.

Another panel in Cohoes told the story of Robert Craner, a local man captured by the Viet-Cong in 1967 and kept in solitary confinement (in a cell next to the senator John McCain with whom he communicated by tapping on the wall). He was subject to beatings and interrogation until released in 1973. He said that the moon landings took place in 1969, but he did not learn about them until four years later. He died of a heart attack in 1980.

We rode out of Cohoes and almost immediately the terrain changed. For weeks now, we have travelled along flat or slightly undulating hills, but we are entering New England and the inclines steepened, but, by way of compensation, we passed through tree-lined valleys and across the top of Tomhannock Reservoir:

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Some time during the day, we left New York State and entered Vermont, but the precise moment was confused by a shop in Hoosick, New York, claiming to be in Vermont. The shop in question was the Big Moose Deli and Country Store which pulled out every stop to attract custom:

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One way it did this was by luring gullible passers-by into taking photographs next to ludicrous subjects, not that we would ever fall for such a ploy:

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Here’s me next to Bruce and Clark (darn it, I’ve just given away their secret identity) – spot the super-hero:

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Only half a mile on was a drive-through (never a drive-thru) coffee shop serving frozen coffee and apple cider doughnuts. Irresistible on a hot day where the temperatures hit 31 degrees C (forecast to go even higher tomorrow):

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Finally we arrived in Bennington where we called in at the local Arts Centre, well worth the stop. It was showing an exhibition of around 100 cartoons from the New Yorker magazine. Everyone loves a good cartoon although what makes a funny one varies depending on one’s sense of humour, but I think that the talent of combining wit and the ability to illustrate the joke is a under-rated skill. It’s almost certainly a breach of copyright but here’s one by Erica Flake – the caption reads, ‘You’re right – they are more comfortable than briefs’.

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You have to think a moment to appreciate this by Sam Gross:

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There was an exhibition by Eric Sloane who paints New England landscapes:

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as well as by a carver of animals and birds from wood, and by artists showing Native American life. A GV rating of Five (partly because I was let in half-price as a senior over 62).

We finally visited the 300 foot high Bennington memorial commemorating the 1777 Battle of Bennington when 2,300 American revolutionaries defeated 1,400 British troops – it wasn’t fair, we were outnumbered! In actual fact, the battle took place 10 miles away in New York, but the Battle of Walloomsac doesn’t scan as well.

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The 2,400 feet (800 metres) of climb we did today will increase by a factor of 1.5 tomorrow before the crescendo of the penultimate day which will combine a ride of 71 miles with a similar amount of ascent. Having brought us to our knees, the tour will decline with a leisurely decent into Boston. Only three days to go.

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C2C Day 48: Little Falls, NY, to Latham, NY – 126.2km, 408m (Cum: 5,516.20km, 26,116m)

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The photos of us taken today show us in our new cycle jerseys which were finally delivered yesterday, only five days before the end of the tour. considering that they were  a ‘rushed job’, we are very pleased with them. They are yellow so show up on the road well and they display our route across a map of the USA. In fact the tour has been so long, the map has to stretch across both front and back. I’ll post a photo of them close up when I get the chance.

We really took to Little Falls. The ice cream that we ate yesterday was bought from a shop in an old mill that made textiles, specifically military uniforms. The presence of the mill and the river reminded me of some of the towns in West Yorkshire:

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Before we left today we had to pay a visit to Lock 17. You will recall from yesterday (surely you can’t have forgotten already?) that Little Falls was founded because boats had to be transported round the big drop in the river. Well, this was translated into the tallest lock on  the whole Erie Canal, 40 feet high. For a long time after its completion in 1912, it was the tallest in the world. And it is huge:

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Fortunately there was a single boat using it as we arrived, and you can see how small and insignificant it looked in comparison with the interior of the lock from this photo:

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Today was a long day – 78 miles – but we crammed a lot into it, mostly unplanned. The trail which seemed to have disappeared yesterday has came back strongly today, and the majority was smoothly tarmacked – one section had been freshly laid this week. Apparently it is the policy of the Governor of New York to pave the whole of the trail in this way. If I were a New York voter, he’d get my support too. We cycled along some beautiful wooded paths, sparkling and green because of the high humidity – we are promised 100% humidity tomorrow. Sweaty!

We hadn’t gone long when we saw just off the trail this house, the home of Nicholas Herkimer, a general in the War of Independence who died in the 1777 battle of Oriskany, also mentioned yesterday:

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His grave was in a cemetery behind the house as well as a monument to his achievements:

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One reason for mentioning this is that, a few miles further on,  I had a puncture only the  third in nearly 5,500 km, and was mending it when another cyclist stopped to ask if he could help. He told us that he lived in a house built by Herkimer for his sister, a smaller version of the one above. He’d been digging recently and had found an 18th Century penny. Previously he’d dug up an old tree and discovered the roots overlay several horse-shoes; he has been advised that the tree was planted on top of the grave of the family horse in all probability. We would never have found this out were it not for the puncture.

We arrived in Canajoharie (pronounced Canjoharry by the locals or simply shortened to Canjo). Here is the traffic light in the middle of a roundabout (regard my forefinger as an unsolicited bonus):

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We sought out the local museum mainly because it had a section on chewing gum, Beech-Nut having had a factory in Canjo till production moved to Florida (New York) in 2011. I do remember Beech Nut selling chewing gum in the UK, but I don’t think they do any longer; Wrigley’s sell 35% of the world’s gum. Beech Nut stated out in Canjo selling smoked ham. Anyway, I’ve always wondered exactly what went into gum, and still remember being traumatised when, as a child, I was told that swallowed gum would take seven years to digest (not true! It was fake news). Well, I continue to wonder because the museum did not open till 12 noon on a Saturday. I was so annoyed! The busiest day of the week and they couldn’t be bothered to open till the afternoon. And it was a public library too. A public service should serve the public so a GV rating of a fat zero to the Arkell Museum.

New York finds us in Amish country again. I was told that they moved up here when land got too expensive in Pennsylvania, though I hardly think it is cheap here. We encountered an Amish family selling cakes and pies by the side of the road, and naturally stopped to buy some, including a whoopie pie, two chocolate rounds with a type of butter cream between, resembling an Oreo.

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Our attention was drawn to a Martyr’s Shrine, unfortunately at the top of a hill. We nevertheless put in the effort. I was expecting a statue such as is seen by the side of the road in France but what we found was a huge building styled a colosseum, holding 6,500 seated people and up to 10,000 with standing. The National Shrine of the North American Martyrs, to give it its full title was dedicated to three Jesuit missionaries killed by Mohawks in the 1640’s. It was amazing, as were the views over the surrounding countryside:

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In a Visitors’ Centre (another canal-related one but it was free), we saw this relief map which illustrates our progress through the state. You can see how, by following the canal trail, we have cunningly avoided the Adirondacks to the north and the Catskills to the south – unfortunately we can’t avoid the Appalachians which we hit tomorrow:

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We approached but had to disregard Amsterdam including its car on a chimney (bitterly disappointing as we saw someone else’s photos, and it was very impressive) and the Kirk Douglas Park. Kirk, aged 102 in December, was born Issur Danielovitch, the son of a Belarussian rag-and-bone man, in this town (it’s interesting to read the account of his early life and its hardships on Wikipedia).

We had decided to visit Schenectady (‘Skenectady’) instead, partly because I like the name (say it to yourself several times and you’ll feel much better) and partly because it was another film location. In fact it has a number of film and literary connections. Mickey Rourke was born there, but my favourite son of Schenectady is the Spiderman villain, Dr Octopus – I’ve no idea why this city was chosen as the birthplace for a fictional character but Henry James, Kurt Vonnegut and Star Trek have all featured such inventions.

The film in question was the 1973 Redford and Streisand romantic drama, The Way We Were, the first section of which was filmed at Union College where Streisand as the anti-War Marxist Jew is attracted to the good looks and easy charm of Redford’s carefree privilege. Union College was well worth the detour. It is in effect a private university at the heart of which is this stunning Italianate memorial to its founder, Eliphalet (yes, Eliphalet) Nott. Although somehow we managed to miss the 18 acres of gardens but the surroundings were sumptuous:

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The sign of a good day is when we miss the start of Happy Hour. We were late again today. Tomorrow we leave New York just as we were getting to know it, and we have only four days of cycling left as we spend two days in the hills of Vermont.

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