Wednesday August 1st 2018
Riding with friends up the Col de la Croix de Fer, today was another tremendous day on the bike. The average gradient of this climb is a mere 5.75% but features a few sections with ramps of up to 12%. But what makes the Pass of the Iron Cross such a slog is the distance. One has to grind up 31.5km from Rochetaillée to an elevation of 2,067 metres, the motivation being lunch and a beer at the summit café.
The Col de la Croix de Fer was first featured in the Tour de France in 1947 and has featured in the race on nineteen occasions. The race organisers, faced with a road closure for the Col du Galibier, made the pro peloton ride it twice in 2015. Mind you, things are never easy when this road is featured in Le Tour. The mountain pass is generally used as a leg drainer before the peloton have to face another savage climb for an uphill finish.
Few would argue that the Col de la Croix de Fer is one of the most picturesque of the mountain passes in The Alps. At times, you almost want to stop pedalling just to sit and soak up the vista. However, there is no rest for the wicked and such climbs have to completed in one uninterrupted effort. Not that we were trying to break any records on the mountain. Like our ascent of L'Alpe d'Huez on the previous day, we made our way up the pass on a social ride with plenty of conversation en-route. At a fairly gentle pace it takes a couple of hours to reach the summit. In the above photograph I am making my way up the climb by Le Plan du Suet with the Lac de Grand Maison in the background.
In terms of variety of terrain the Col de la Croix de Fer has it all. There are some difficult steep gradients, exciting switchbacks, long stretches of sheer beauty, waterfalls, streams, two lakes, and plenty of bell-ringing cows. It is a magnificent climb. Squint hard enough and one can see the Iron Cross for many a kilometre, though I can imagine that anyone suffering on the climb would think they are never going to reach the top as it is a long slog uphill. The temperature on the climb was around 34 degrees so I was parched by the time I reached the summit where my glass of Leffe hardly touched the sides. There is little other beer choice at the café but anybody who has seen "Ice Cold in Alex" will know that most glasses of cold beer would suffice. Well, unless perhaps they had Doom Bar on sale. One has to draw a line somewhere!
Do not expect a fuss from the people running the Chalet du Col de la Croix de Fer. Our waitress couldn't have been more arsey. Her face was a picture when I asked if it would be possible to have champignons with my omelette. One of my riding friends ordered what he thought was a salad with tomatoes. However, it was most bizarre when he was literally served a plate of nothing but sliced tomatoes - and I mean a load of tomatoes. We all ordered a lunch, beer, coffee and spent some euros on cycling apparel but the paradigm of arseyness could not be shifted. They don't have to be pleasant to patrons as they have a captive audience at the top of a blinkin' great mountain. Besides, I found the whole affair mildly amusing. We did the usual photograph parade before one great rush of excitement on the terrific descent where I broke my downhill speed record whilst praying that I didn't suffer a front wheel puncture. When I am ancient and less able I will look back to days like these and remember what it is to be alive.
Thursday August 2nd 2018
Climbing up L'Alpe d'Huez and the Col de la Croix de Fer on the previous two days were the hors d'oeuvres before today's main course of cycling. Consequently, I ordered the main dish of tackling the Col du Télégraphe and a double ascent of the Col du Galibier, a road that is often the highest of the Tour de France and widely regarded as one of the toughest mountain passes to climb in The Alps.
I cycled with Richard, my good cycling friend who hails from Yorkshire so he knows all about suffering on hills. However, I don't think he was aware that I planned to ride the Galibier twice. I told him once we had reached the summit for the first time. Amazingly, he is still my friend! Our two other cycling pals were possibly aware of my plans so they opted for a more relaxing day around Le Bourg-d'Oisans.
Our first ascent of the Col du Galibier was up the south side from the Col du Lautaret which avoids the road tunnels on the main route to Briançon. From here it is uphill from the very first pedal stroke. The view of the mountains here are awe-inspiring and the impending task of cycling up the pass suddenly looks rather alarming. It was mid-morning and the heat was already terrific. We were reeling in another rider up the road and when we got close we started to chat. Well, we exchanged what conversation was possible as Michael from Avignon was suffering a little. It transpired that he had ridden to the Col du Galibier from Grenoble. Anybody who is familiar with the region will know that this is pretty much uphill all the way. Although he is very familiar with his local hill - the mighty Ventoux - he was finding the final kilometres of his epic ride a little difficult. The good news was that his partner was arriving by car to pick him up after his journey. As is the way with cyclists going up a mountain, we pressed on after our brief exchange. He was in his own world of pain and our legs were relatively fresh. I took the above photograph of this amiable Frenchman as we rode away wishing him good luck.
The road over this mountain was first opened in the late 1870s when the military improved an old mule track over the summit. The ancient route was rather like the old drover's roads of Britain in that they were favoured by those wishing to avoid taxes and tolls. The road is closed during the winter and is difficult to traverse in the early period before and after the snow. About a kilometre from the summit, a tunnel was built in 1891 to make things easier for travellers. This tunnel has since been renewed but for the last quarter of the 20th century it was closed so a 'new' road was laid over the summit. And it is this road that is the hardest section of the climb because it ramps up to 12% just when your legs are already tired from the previous long kilometres of ascending. For me, this is the best bit as it provides a lovely challenge to reach the summit. Mind you, it was tougher in the old days and the gradient is a little less severe than it was for pre-war Tour de France riders who toiled up the mountain on heavy machines.
I have been accused of being a bit of a poser when it comes to passing the photographers plying their trade on the roadside. There were three different firms operating on the Col du Galibier. They snap you as you ride past and then the photographer runs after you with a business card so you can order the photographs from their website on your return home. I wonder how much the photographers are paid by the studio/website? It is a long day for them on the mountain but I guess there are worse ways of making a living.
No matter how difficult the physical task you are undertaking there is always somebody going the extra mile - you know, like some folks who are chuffed to run a marathon and then see Eddie Izzard run 43 of them in 51 days. Anyway, with about two kilometres to go we passed a middle-aged bloke running up the mountain. I was taking photographs from the summit when he came up the road and, admiring his effort, I applauded him and shouted 'Chapeau.'
And here we are, Richard and myself together like 'Brothers in Arms' at the summit. He's looking relaxed - I don't think I had told him about the second ascent from the more difficult north side at this point! Still, the dogged Yorkshireman is always up for a cycling challenge. Besides, in the meantime we had the fantastic descent down to Valloire to enjoy before any more uphill grimpeur action. And it is an exciting descent through switchbacks and some technical sections before the road stretches out to the ski resort in the valley below.
Braking for the switchbacks can slow you down a little but even a steady descender like myself can easily reach 80kph going down this mountain. I wanted the rush of excitement but not the total white knuckle approach which can easily end in tears and a whole load of road rash. We went flying past a hostelry en-route but forged on to Valloire. This place was a simple farming village until the inter-years when its potential as a ski resort was first realised. In a story akin to No Name City in "Paint Your Wagon," it suddenly expanded into a booming metropolis in the middle of nowhere. On the approach to the town we were enchanted by the exhibits of the recent Straw and Hay Sculpture Contest and parked up to wander around. The photograph above shows La Fuite [The Escape], the winning entry created by Jiri Lastovicka and his son who hail from the Czech Republic.
After re-fuelling at an artisan bakery on Rue des Grandes Alpes in Valloire, we headed towards the Col du Télégraphe which, as you can see from the above photograph, was a doddle. The longer route up this pass from Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne is the more challenging road to the summit but, c'est la vie, you cannot do them all in one go. We still had the arduous task of making our second ascent up the northern side of the Col du Galibier and getting back to Le Bourg-d'Oisans. First used in the Tour de France in 1911, the Col du Télégraphe generally precedes the Col du Galibier - if any rider struggles on this climb then they know they are heading for a whole world of pain on the Galibier, the sixth highest mountain pass in The Alps.
The climb from Valloire to the summit of the Col du Galibier maxes out at 10.1% so what's the big deal? Well, as climbing legend Simon Warren points out: "it is utterly unforgiving." In his superb pocket guide to the 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs of the Tour de France he scores this road with the maximum 10/10 for difficulty. A cyclist does not show up in Valloire having done no training at all because this 18.1 kilometre ascent, amid some of the most barren landscape, will eat you up for breakfast.
I imagine that there is always a headwind riding up the valley, though the light draughts today offered some relief to the oven-like temperature. We climbed the most brutal sections of the Galibier as the temperature gauge on my Garmin indicated that it was over 38 degrees. We were being slow roasted on the slopes as we toiled uphill. But, hey, what a fantastic climb it is - I absolutely loved every centimetre of this cycling monument. It was draining in the heat but I felt strong on the bike and enjoyed the same satisfying feelings that I experienced climbing Mont Ventoux.
Descending for around a kilometre to the south portal of the tunnel there is a monument to Henri Desgrange, the man credited with founding the Tour de France. The memorial was inaugurated when the tour passed on July 19th, 1949 some thirty eight years after he first made the peloton ride over this cruel mountain. A wreath is laid on the memorial on each occasion that the tour comes over the Col.
There is a pension/refuge close to the Desgrange memorial. There seemed to be more wind here and I suddenly felt very cold with my cycling kit drenched in perspiration. We sought shelter inside which is a combined café and souvenir shop run by a rather eccentric bloke. The Frenchman had seemingly based his sales techniques on viewing Albert Arkwright in "Open All Hours" and invested much effort persuading me to buy a commemorative jersey with bib shorts. One of the available designs was actually quite nice but the rear of the jersey and arse of the shorts featured corny slogans that he clearly thought were highly entertaining when he phoned the manufacturer with his specifications. Of far more interest to me was the cheese sandwich on the café's menu. In true Arkwright style, the proprietor said: "I'll sell you a large baguette but I'll only charge you for two small butties." I had only eaten a light meal on the previous evening and lunch in Valloire was a light affair. Consequently, the double ascent of the Col du Galibier made me rather hungry. My eyes lit up when a large baguette was placed before me. I was clearly ravenous because it went in sideways! Just the ticket before another epic descent and our triumphant return to Le Bourg-d'Oisans.
Friday August 3rd 2018
Our last day of cycling in The Alps featured a couple of key climbs. I had a bee in my bonnet about the Lacets de Montvernier after seeing the climb featured on the Tour de France in 2015. This was the fun climb of the day as we would then make our way to the foot of the Col du Glandon for our final bit of suffering. There was, of course, another fun element - the rapid descent from the summit of the Col de la Croix de Fer. All we had to do was get to the top in order to roll downhill for a zillion kilometres.
The descent to Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne from the summit is 29.5km and, despite some sketchy sections of tarmac, is tremendous fun to ride - or fly. The steep switchbacks at the top are great fun with screeching brakes for the tight hairpins and then stamping on the pedals to get back up to speed as quickly as possible. These roads provide incredible adrenaline rushes and I was as high as a kite.
The high mountain is dramatic but the scenery lower down in the L'Arvan valley is stunning in places. We stopped a few times just to soak it all in and take a few photographs. The engineering of tunnels and bridges is also remarkable.
We rolled into Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne on the hunt for sustenance for our impending climbs. Surprisingly, it was not easy to find a place that served both good cycling fuel and great coffee. However, we dropped lucky by discovering a superb delicatessen opposite the Town Hall. The quiches and tartlets were the stuff of legend and easily the best food I tasted on the entire trip. The same praise cannot be heaped upon the public toilets around the corner by the Town Hall. Featuring swing doors similar to those in old westerns, the squat bogs with a hole in the ground and footplates were minging.
In the middle of a roundabout at Hermillon there is a monster-sized bicycle. Richard took up a bet that he couldn't climb up onto the handlebars. He had done some rock climbing in the past and, to our amazement, proved to be quite adept at hauling himself up in no time.
We rode through the small town of Pontamafrey and hit the Lacets de Montvernier at quite a lick. Opting to take photographs on the descent back down, we rode up what is a mini L'Alpe d'Huez at a decent pace. My heart rate monitor was exploding but the legs still had some oomph in them so I led a charge around the seventeen hairpins on this fantastic road. The gradient on this awesome climb hovers around 8.5% but, with only 120 metres between each switchback, you rapidly gain height.
This image helps to show why this climb is called Les Lacets - or shoelaces in French. It looks as though some giant shoelaces have been dropped from the sky onto the mountain. If the climb were 40km to the south-east they would no doubt have some form of spaghetto epithet. Reportedly created without machinery by 36 workers of a local engineering firm, construction of the road was not completed until the early 1930s. However, it was some eighty years before the climb was used in the Tour de France. The views of the road from the television cameras captivated the audience and it was immediately placed on the bucket list of thousands of cyclists around the globe.
Our small peloton was blown to pieces at Montvernier. One rider took the wrong turn and was well on his way up the Col du Chaussy before we phoned to correct his nomadic ways. Another rider fell off his bike before setting off down a track to capture the wonderful shoelaces photograph shown above. Meanwhile, I seemed to get volunteered to look after the expensive bike of a German woman who also wanted to vanish into the woods. Once we had all regrouped we rolled down the Lacets gently to appreciate the beauty of this feat of engineering. I can also thank my cycling friend, un homme qui est à moitié français, who captured the above photograph of me negotiating one of the switchbacks on the descent. Somehow, I actually look as though I know what I am doing!
Did I mention the heat? We were climbing mountains on a day when southern Europe was experiencing record-breaking temperatures. At one point my Garmin display was registering 42.7 degrees. Whenever we stopped during the day I had to ensure I was in the shade in order not to melt. We were getting through bidons at a rate of knots and we had emptied the tanks again during our merriment on Les Lacets de Montvernier. After rolling down to Les Îles, and probably looking as parched as the passengers in the "Flight of the Phoenix," we ventured into a large supermarket desperate for eau froide. Incredibly, we emerged empty-handed from the place and, being close to the foot of the Col du Glandon, were starting to worry about our hydration strategy. Further up the road there was an odd-looking bar on an industrial estate, outside of which was parked a Harley Davidson straight out of Terminator 2. Curious to see if some Austrian-born former bodybuilder was asking for somebody's clothes, we entered the bar with some trepidation. The scene inside was however benign and the kind-hearted woman behind the bar provided us all with ice-cold water whilst refusing payment. She probably thought that if we were daft enough to climb the Glandon in temperatures exceeeding 40 degrees then we deserved a 'last drop' gratis as they did in the days of executions.
An industrial estate is hardly the most picturesque start to our climb of the Col du Glandon but things got prettier when reaching Saint-Étienne-de-Cuines. Last used in the 2013 edition of Le Tour de France, the ascent of the Col du Glandon is a whopping 21.3km so, although it is not as tough as other Alpine giants, it is a steady climb that can grind down the most ardent of grimpeurs. The average gradient is 6.9%, starting steadily and slowly but surely ramping up as you go. And then there is the heat - you could have fried an egg on the tarmac.
On the back of a rest day, our honorary half-Frenchman, seemed to be feeling good so forged on whilst I stayed with the others. To be honest, I was relieved to take things easier as, combined with the heat, I was starting to feel the effects of two ascents of the Col du Galibier on the previous day. Our water bottles were not going to last for this long climb as it was difficult to ration supplies. The sun was baking hot and tree shade was sparing. And all we could see was the road winding uphill like a snake. Exactly as described by the road guides, it was unrelenting. Just as the bidons were empty we arrived on the outskirts of Saint-Colomban-des-Villards where a bar offered salvation. This place was a combined café and gift shop with a rather musty smell. There was nobody inside. The proprietor, an elderly lady, looked as though she was taking a nap in an adjoining living room. Not that anybody was going to rob her of her souvenirs and trinkets because a gigantic canine beast with a look of menace was lying on the floor of the café. Suddenly the old woman appeared. She took one look at us clutching empty bidons and went to work on refilling our bottles whilst expressing her surprise that we should choose to climb the Glandon during the hottest day on record. We confirmed that we were indeed completely insane.
Crossing the bridge over Le Glandon, the first of the switchbacks indicates that the gradient is going up, The section from here to the Ravin du Sapey is testing but the valley opens out and the views are stunning to the point of overwhelming. The road relents for a few kilometres, allowing a little recovery for the final test in the exposed upper reaches of the valley. The final two kilometres to the top exceed 10% with some stretches registering 12% - just the sort of thing to break your heart after climbing for so long. It is at such times you have to wheel out the "dig deep" clichés within your brain and simply get on with it. However, the combination of fatigue, overheating and the loss of fluids, made this the most difficult two kilometres of the week.
Grinding up the steep switchbacks, I was so relieved to roll over the finish line. But, wow, the view back down the valley, with Mont Blanc forming a backdrop, is possibly worth the price of admission. I say possibly because, on this occasion, there was no flag-waving or photographs in front of road signs. We hadn't conquered the Glandon, we had simply survived. Exhausted, we dragged our sorry arses back to Le Bourg-d'Oisans.
Thursday August 9th 2018
After all the euphoria of last week's trip to The Alps, this week's back-to-reality has been tough to endure. Still, today I returned to two-wheeled action again by joining a Stourbug club run to the Boardman Performance Centre at Evesham. I was keen to see this new facility and shop so I signed up for the ride. The small group I teamed up with at Droitwich cycled at a good pace down to Evesham and the ride was most enjoyable.
The Boardman Performance Centre is the latest development from the man who, through sporting achievements, bike design, affordable bicyles and road safety campaigning, has probably done more for British cycling than anybody. He really should be a Sir by now. In keeping with his ethos of making top level cycling affordable for everybody, this facility has been designed for normal, everyday cyclists wishing to examine and improve their physiological fitness, function and health, coupled with bike-fitting, positional biomechanics and aerodynamics. Funded by the sale of the brand to Halfords, this development fulfills a personal dream and ambition for Chris Boardman.
The ground-floor concept store has a wide range of the Boardman bike range, along with accessories and equipment. Moreover, visitors can get a close-up of a couple of the bikes that Chris Boardman rode into the history books. Pictured above is the French-manufactured Corima on which he broke the Hour World Record in July 1993, cycling 52.270km in 60 minutes at the Velodrome du Lac in Bordeaux. The store has plenty of stuff to drool over but is rather clinical in that there is little opportunity to get 'hands-on' with the machines. Everything seemed to be bolted in place. They also didn't have the new titanium bike in which I was interested. I was told it would be about four weeks before it would be in stock. The guy behind the counter, friendly as he was, told me to check their Facebook page for updates. I would have thought that a customer willing to spend such money on a new bicycle would have their details taken and informed personally when the bike was available for viewing. The store could perhaps benefit from an in-house cycling café, though there was such a place across the street. Still, a fascinating 'quick' look at the new facility. I hope it succeeds.
Saturday August 11th 2018
For an unpredictable day of weather we elected to ride out to Malvern today. We just about got away with it because the rain didn't get going until after our return home. We crossed the River Severn near Diglis Island where we stumbled upon a giraffe, one of nearly 60 featured in the 'Worcester Stands Tall' public art trail which will be operating between July to mid-September as a celebration of St. Richard's Hospice and Wild in Art. Fifty-seven giraffes by regional and national artists have been placed around Worcester. After the exhibition the statues are to be auctioned to raise funds for the St. Richard's Hospice Build 2020 Appeal.
This giraffe is by the Sri Lanka-born artist Gayani Ariyaratne and is entitled 'An Outstanding Source,' the inspiration for which "came from Worcestershire's very own delightful condiment. In this design, the artist aimed to highlight the history, plants and flowers of the original ingredients, and the excitement of combining exotic and local ingredients in this unique sauce."
The permanent public artwork behind the giraffe features metal cut-outs of Olympic gold medal-winning cyclist, Ernest Payne, founder of the British Medical Association, Sir Charles Hastings, along with Parliamentarian and Royalist soldiers from the Civil War. This metal artwork was unveiled in July 2013 by dignitaries and children from Pitmaston Primary School. The installation celebrated the riverside pedestrian and cycle routes created through a partnership between Worcester City Council, Worcestershire County Council and Sustrans.
Our next stop was at Powick Bridge. Altered in the 17th century, the late medieval sandstone structure with brick parapets spans the River Teme. During the English Civil Wars the first skirmish [September 1642] and the last major battle [September 1651] took place on and near this historic bridge. It was during the latter battle that the two northern piers of the bridge were destroyed by the Royalists. The tall chimney in the above photograph was part of the world's first combined steam-hydro electric power station that was created in and around the site of a former water mill. At one time the electricity created here provided approximately half of the city''s power. Electricity was generated at the site until its closure in the 1950s when it was converted into a laundry. The building has since been converted into residential apartments.
From Powick we enjoyed a quiet route to Malvern through Deblin's Green and Madresfield before undertaking the climb up to Upper Wyche for lunch at the excellent Wyche Inn. The pub, once known as the Herefordshire House, has been run by Tony Skelton and Stephanie Daly since 2009. The couple had previously kept the Rose and Crown, a Brierley Hill pub operated by Holden's Brewery. They run an orderly and tidy house and offer real ales, good value food and accommodation. Oh, and they are dog-friendly. Good news for walkers who can rest up here and enjoy tremendous views of the Worcestershire plain.
The beer at the Wyche Inn is excellent and a credit to the cellarmanship at the pub. I was chuffed to find Church End Vicar's Ruin available as I haven't stumbled on this for ages. And a mighty fine Warwickshire beer it is too. The Frizzle Worcestershire IPA was new to us - for some reason this beer produced in nearby Suckley has not been seen on our travels. The brewery producing this ale was known as the Unity Brew House until this year when the trading name changed to The Hop Shed, marking their relocation to a hop farm. The brewery was once even closer to the Wyche Inn as it was based in a chicken shed at Malvern. The brewery describes Frizzle Worcestershire IPA as "rich golden in colour with a fruity, floral hop aroma and a significant hoppy bitterness from a combination of Pilgrim, UK Cascade and First Gold Hops." Despite being below our benchmark of 5.0% for an IPA, it is however a very pleasant and refreshing beer.
The beer choice at the Wyche Inn is constantly changing and many unusual and lesser-spotted real ales appear on the handpulls. The pub is an excellent port-of-call on the elevated border of Worcestershire and Herefordshire. If cycling, I recommend avoiding the main road and approaching the pub via the old Wyche Road as the steep incline works up a nice thirst!
From the Wyche Inn we enjoyed cycling along Jubilee Drive, an elevated carriage route laid in the Victorian period and affording fabulous views across Herefordshire. From the Malvern Hills Hotel we rolled down past Little Malvern Priory before turning along the gated road through Castlemorton Common, once the site of the biggest free [and illegal] music festival-cum-rave staged in the UK. The event held on a Bank Holiday in 1992 attracted a crowd estimated at 20,000. Today, Castlemorton Common, once part of the vast Royal hunting grounds of the Malvern Chase, is the largest remaining tract of unenclosed public land and is a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It is a joy to ride through this Site of Special Scientific Interest.
It was too soon to stop after our lunch at the Wyche Inn but I regret not calling at the Plume of Feathers, a nice old 18th century tavern. We also rode past the Farmers' Arms at Birts Street, an ancient pub that we love to visit. What were we thinking? The reason for these omissions was time and the fact that we wanted to call at a pub that we had not previously patronised. So, we cycled eastwards to Longdon before heading north to the Drum and Monkey at Newbridge Green. A sign outside this 17th century hostelry states that it is "The Best Pub For Miles," a claim that is quite ludicrous given that it was like a morgue inside and the young girl behind the servery didn't have a clue how to pour beer into a glass. I had consulted CAMRA's What Pub which stated that four beers were available, usually with one each from the nearby Malvern Hills and Ledbury breweries. Despite being the weekend, this was not the case and only two handpulls were in action. However, they were selling Ledbury Gold so I gave this a whirl. It was very poor in comparison to the marvellous beer we had enjoyed at the Wyche Inn. Only one other table was occupied and the atmosphere in the pub was what I imagine it is like at a senior citizens' night out at a Conservative Club.
Making our escape from the ironically-named "Best Pub For Miles," we meandered through the back lanes to arrive at the Three Kings at Hanley Castle. Located next to a small green and adjacent to the church, this ancient tavern has entered pub and ale folklore because it is unspoilt and has been run by the same family for over a century. Featured in CAMRA's National Inventory of Historic Interiors, I love this place, particularly the small snug with a large inglenook fireplace and settle. You order your beer from a small serving hatch and everything is lovely .... except ... I am going to upset a lot of people here by being critical of this much beloved pub. The Three Kings was always a little grubby inside but things have tipped over the edge and I can only describe it as utterly filthy. It is one thing having a pub where time has stood still for generations but occasionally it would be nice if a mop and duster were brought out of retirement. The seat cushions are black, the floor is covered with beer slops and a flea jumped out of the rank curtains and bit me. I feel terrible for criticising such a shrine but somebody had to say it.
Thursday August 16th 2018
Meeting up with friends we hadn't seen for a while, we elected to hook up at the Waggon and Horses in Halesowen. We have been a few times since the pub was acquired by Black Country Ales. The Pensnett-based brewery and pub group made a pretty good job of the refurbishment of this popular house. And thank goodness they retained the sloping floor which enhances the character of the place.
Under the old regime, the beer was generally good but could be hit-and-miss at times. However, on my visits since the pub was re-opened I have found the beer to be in superb condition. Tonight was no different and every one of the beers we ordered was served as the brewer would probably like it. We ordered all but one of the beers and enjoyed a really good session. The beer pictured above grabbed my attention simply because I am a fan of Titanic Brewery's Plum Porter. The Old Sawley Brewing Company possibly tried to replicate the success of the former by creating their own porter using muscovado sugar, vanilla and plenty of plums. It is a silver award winner in the Cask Speciality mid-to-dark beers category at the SIBA Midlands Independent Beer Awards. Not quite the Champion Beer Of Britain award that Titanic Brewery picked up in 2015 but the brewery based at the White Lion in Sawley is getting there!
Friday August 17th 2018
I went for a spin around Droitwich today and on the way home I noticed that The Fox at Chaddesley Corbett had re-opened. Apparently, it opened again on July 31st with a new management team of Benjamin Giles and Emma Preston. Playing to the pub's strengths and reputation, the food-led business is once again offering carvery meals along with a menu in which main plates are around £10-12. I took a quick look on Trip Advisor and early reviews are very positive with plenty of people saying the food is great and the customer service excellent. In another bit of continuity it would seem that The Fox will continue to stock real ales. At the time of writing, the pub is selling Wye Valley HPA, Black Sheep Baa Baa Pale Ale and their own Fox Ale brewed by Theakston's.
I cycled up the main street to see if a similar re-opening had taken place at The Talbot. Intrigued by the sound of work going on inside I ventured around the back and inside just to check if the building, closed for some time now, was going to remain as a pub.
On venturing inside I was surprised to see Mark Titman and Lucy Stringer, who run the Swan Inn across the road, overseeing work. Mark told me that he had bought the pub two months earlier. He had plans to refurbish the pub, create an orangery to the rear and offer boutique accommodation in the first floor rooms. He said the interior is to be 'brought up to date' and intends to knock the whole interior into one large room. This means the old panelling and wooden screens will be removed.
If I am honest I am a bit sad to see some of the old interior being ripped out. Furthermore, I am not sure whether a 17th century building needs to be updated. But I guess it is better to have a pub than it being converted into a private house. It should also be noted that the wood panelling and screens I mention were not original features but inserted by the brewery possibly in the inter-war years. However, as you can see from a photograph I took a decade ago, the woodwork did have some character. By the way, the couple will remain as tenants of the Batham's-operated Swan Inn.
Saturday August 18th 2018
Considering we are not churchgoers we spend a considerable amount of time in them. On our travels we do like to have a bit of a rummage in the stockpile or 'congregation' of historic buildings dotted around Britain's landscape. When cycling around the countryside one of the best ways of learning some history of the parishes is to wander into the church where all manner of interesting facts and events are documented. Moreover, the gallimaufry of buildings are so diverse they offer a rich tale of architectural invention and reinvention, notwithstanding the attempts of the Victorians to rewrite the past. Today, we headed over to Tenbury Wells to tour some of the churches located around the Teme valley close to the border of Herefordshire.
An early port-of-call was the Talbot Hotel at Newnham Bridge, a lovely-looking building on the junction of the roads to Kidderminster and Worcester. Featuring tall chimneys, arched stone mullioned windows and brick band detailing, the building was reportedly built around 1850 as a hunting lodge for the Newnham Estate. Often eroneously described as a former coaching inn, the impetus for conversion to a hotel was almost certainly the arrival of the Tenbury & Bewdley Railway in 1864.
The fortunes of the Talbot Hotel slipped in the new millennium and the building was boarded up around 2010-11. Thankfully, the hotel was saved but the interior refurbishment is a disappointment for me and its contemporary furnishings out of kilter with the building's history. But, hey, at least it is still a pub - of sorts. There is a drinking space at least! Actually, this room isn't so bad. The good news is that the beer is decent and the servery has Hobson's Town Crier, along with Wye Valley Bitter and HPA. The restaurant is reportedly good and the business offers what they now call 'boutique' accommodation, another on-trend term that, to me at least, means sod all.
The first place of worship that we visited was the Church of Saint Lawrence at Lindridge, a Victorian building designed by Thomas Nicholson, the Hereford architect responsible for many churches in Wales. This structure was built in 1861, replacing an older church on the site. The replaced church was itself a replacement as the older church dedicated to All Saints' was ruined by fire in the 17th century. It's a funny thing but we get a sense of whether we are going to enjoy a church almost as soon as we have walked through the entrance as a pervading impression or atmosphere is almost immediate. This building left us a little cold. There are however a few traces of the earlier church to be found inside.
The Church of Saint Lawrence stands in a relatively isolated position for Lindridge is a scattered parish with no discernible centre. The biggest cluster of buildings is further along the road at Eardiston. Not long after leaving the church there is a left-hand turn to Frith Common where you can see the former Nag's Head. This private house finished up trading as the Spice Restaurant and Bar but I know a few old lags of cycling who remember calling into this former Banks's hostelry back in the day. In recent years the property has been extended on the right-hand side. Further up this lane there was another pub next to the old Methodist Chapel called the New Inn. Once part of a dairy farm, the house was the scene of many local inquests. One such hearing took place in March 1842 after a young lad was found dead in a coal pit belonging to Sir Edward Blount at Frith Common. I assume this was at Bucketsleasow Colliery on a site close to today's Hunt House Farm.
On the opposite side of the main road from the former Nag's Head a number of the fields are devoted to growing hops. Being mid-August they were well on their way towards harvest time. I suspect that these hops are grown by Geoff Thompson of Little Lambswick Farm. Over 80% of the hops used by the local Hobson's Brewery are grown here in the Teme Valley. I do not know a great deal about the hop industry but it does seem that less is grown nowadays, partly due to increased efficiency in hop use during the brewing process. However, with more small breweries starting up in business, many of which produce very hoppy ales, the supply chain must be under pressure. This must surely drive up the price of hops. Consequently, I am not sure why we do not grow more in this traditional hop-growing region. Having said that, there has been a marked increase in demand of American hops within the micro and craft brewing field, and this has led to a substantial increase in production across the Atlantic. In some cases, this has actually led to a surplus of the crop - all very confusing.
We cycled through Eardiston and turned right, heading south at Stockton-on-Teme. I love the view from this lane, looking south-west across the Teme Valley towards Stanford Bank. Saint Mary's Church can be seen midway up the steep climb. We were originally going to cycle up to the church but, after a break for lunch, we decided to take a more circuitous route via Clifton-upon-Teme.
Resisting the temptation to nip in for an early one at The Bridge at Stanford, we crossed the river for nibbles at The Den Café. To be honest until recently I had no idea there was a café here. The owners have erected signs in the locality but these get taken down by the council or the Linda Snell's of the world. In the past I must have missed the sign outside the entrance as I generally thunder down the hill from Abberley with my mind totally focused on the impending assault on Stanford Bank. Today, however, we are meandering at a leisurely pace so there's no rush. Actually, it is hard to rush the people running this place - I have been twice and the service is rather unhurried. On a previous visit it took so long for them to rustle up some scrambled eggs my pot of tea had gone cold by the time my plate arrived. Today was slightly quicker - but only just. And that was with the place almost empty.
The service is my only real gripe of what is a very pleasant café. It was a cycling friend who told me about The Den. He said it was just past the bridge close to a caravan park which conjured up images of a greasy spoon shack. However, The Den is quite the opposite and would fit into a chic urban neighbourhood with trendy patrons relaxing amid a café-jazz soundtrack with a sprinkling of bossa nova and chanson. Breakfasts are reportedly very popular here but a full English will set you back £8.95p, a price reflecting the retro chic of the interior. I have cycling friends from the Black Country who would reel in horror at £5.25p for a Bacon and Sausage Bap. However, this can be a hob-nob part of Worcestershire and I expect to fork out more for my cycling fuel.
The range of toasted sandwiches is good for us veggies with Cheddar & Beetroot, Stilton & Grape, Mature Cheddar & Tomato plus Brie & Cranberry. I opted for the latter at £6.95p and it was pretty good. Not as good or filling however as those served in the Old Village Store at Wolverley where they are £2 less! Le Goddess du Vélo had a more filling Quiche served with Potato Salad and Coleslaw for £8.95p, a reasonable fee for a very enjoyable plate. The choice of cakes was a little disappointing and there was nothing homemade about them. Notwithstanding the slow service which is offset by a friendly face, The Den makes for a decent pit stop. Oh, must mention the cleanliness of the loos!
The Den is one of a number of businesses housed in the farm buildings opposite the former mill. There had been a mill in Stanford for centuries. Roger Washbourne was recorded operating the mill in 1257. Close to The Den Café is Stanford Court, ancestral home of the Winnington baronets. The house had to undergo extensive repairs and alterations following a fire in 1882. The children's author Lucy Lyttelton Cameron was born at Stanford Court. In years gone by, there used to be a Foresters' Fete held on the meadows next to the old bridge. The Bridge Hotel benefited from good trade during the annual event. The main road used to pass in front of the pub and over the old bridge. The first cast-iron bridge here collapsed in 1795.
Following lunch, we rolled along the Teme Valley to Shelsley Walsh, a place famous for hosting one of the oldest motorsport events in the world. The Shelsley Walsh Speed Hill Climb was inaugurated here in 1905 making it the oldest active motor sport venue still using its original course. I have cycled up the hill a couple of times, once in a hill climbing competition where, inevitably, I was an also ran. The speed at which the top cyclists can go up here is remarkable. I once stood mouth agape at the pace set by Matt Clinton and Richard Bussell, the latter being well known to me simply because he is top of the leaderboard on almost every Strava segment in the area!
I have dug out a photograph of me going up the hill - as you can see I am not taking it too seriously as I am posing for a photograph on the way up! I had just overtaken the chap who started a minute ahead of me, a good cycling friend who shares a peverse passion for suffering on a bike. The climb at Shelsley Walsh rises 100 metres over a length of 1,000 yards, the average gradient being 10.9%. There is however a steep section which ramps up to 16% - not desperately hard but it does hurt when trying to climb at the fastest rate your body will allow. The British National Hill Climb Championship is to be staged here later in the year. By the way, Matt Clinton went up Shelsley Walsh in 2 minutes 43 seconds. The record for a motorised ascent is held by Martin Groves who set a time of 22.58 seconds in August 2008.
There is, of course, more to Shelsley Walsh than its famous hill climb. The site around the paddocks and start line is the nucleus of a small historic village. The site is officially private but I assume it is permitted to go and look at Saint Andrew's Church, a lovely travertine building, the nave of which dates back to the 12th century. The interior features a remarkable 15th century screen which Sir John Betjeman considered the finest in the county. Nearby is a restored water mill which was last worked in the 1920s but is open on selected dates throughout the year.
From Shelsey Walsh we cycled along the valley towards Ham Bridge before we had a little climb to enjoy or, in the case of Le Goddess du Vélo, endure. Having recently returned from The Alps, I found the road up Clifton Hill a short blip. However, my riding partner was not having a great time of it. Determined, she dug in and put in a good effort. I didn't have the heart to take her up the old road as it is a bit steeper and this meant not calling at the New Inn. However, there is a good pub facing the green at Clifton-on-Teme where we enjoyed some decent Wye Valley HPA. The other choice at the Lion Inn was Greene King Abbot Ale.
The Lion Inn is seemingly viable because the tenants do a bit of everything. The pub has retained a bar and games room whilst it is still possible to drink in the central part of the building. In addition, there is a more formal dining area where the villagers can go a bit hob nob if they wish. The Lion also has three guest bedrooms for tourists and visitors. The games room has a marvellous collection of old photographs showing competitors and cars at Shelsley Walsh. A good seat on a sunny day is the small outdoor space facing the village green. Whilst we were enjoying our beer, a large riding group rocked up on this space from where several riders were sent to get the beers in. It seemed like a most agreeable form of pub crawl. They were certainly having a better time than the bloke in the pub who, complete with laptop, was using his local as an office to do his accounts. Judging by the volume of receipts and invoices he tipped out of an old carrier bag, he was going to be pissed up before he made any sense of his shambolic filing system.
Before leaving Clifton-on-Teme we ventured inside Saint Kenelm's Church, parts of which date back to the 13th century. The building was restored in the mid-19th century by James Cranston. Clifton has a very traditional village layout, or at least what most regard as the rural idyll. Unlike many villages in the area, some of the shops and services have been retained. There are a large number of listed buildings here so a prolonged visit will be rewarded with interest. We cycled past the Manor House and along the road to Sapey Common.
In order to break my downhill speed record I think I will need to revisit The Alps. At one time though Stanford Bank presented a good opportunity to increase the speed of wheel revolutions. Most cyclists with a little effort can easily clock 80kph down this stretch of road. I am normally excited by the descent from Waters Farm down to Stanford Bridge but on this occasion we were going to have to drop anchor midway down the hill so that we could call into Saint Mary's Church. I have been meaning to visit this church for a few years but am normally going so fast it would scorch my wheel rims in any attempt to stop the bike.
Stopping on the way up Stanford Bank to look at the church has also not been possible because ascents are normally at full gas in some ridiculous and rather pathetic attempt to improve my time climbing the hill. I have even been known to enter a time trial which passes the building. The Jack Clements Memorial Little Mountain Time Trial follows a 39 mile course that includes Stanford Bank and Ankerdine Hill. The event is named after the man who was President of the Beacon Roads Cycling Club for 40 years. Close to the entrance to the church, and overlooking the road on which the time trial is held, there is a bench dedicated to the former cycle shop proprietor and manager of the Dawes Professional Racing Team.
Overlooking the valley, Saint Mary's Church benefits from a lovely position. The building is not of great antiquity because it was a replacement for a Norman building deemed to be unsafe and later demolished. The remains are beneath the lake of Stanford Court, a large body of water that can be seen from the hill. Designed in the Strawberry Gothic style by John Rose, Saint Mary's Church was erected on a new site in 1768-9. Featuring a large ceiling centrepiece with flower and feather mouldings, the plastered interior is lovely. A 15th century alabaster table tomb with the recumbent effigies of Sir Humphrey and Joyce Salwey was removed from the old church and positioned in a corner of the chancel. Other memorials are to the Winnington family who financed the construction of the church when Stanford Park was landscaped - which makes me wonder if the old building was actually in ruins?
We spent the late afternoon visiting the churches at Eastham and Rochford, along with drinking some beer at the historic Peacock Inn at Boraston. With Tenbury just up the road, it may seem like the visitor is in Worcestershire but this building is just inside the Shropshire border. The Peacock once had boats and trains passing close to the building as it was next to the Leominster Canal and the Tenbury & Bewdley Railway. This is a pub in which I have to be quite careful as there are some low beams. Parts of the interior are panelled and boasts a refined character and ambience. The food is reportedly good and is not overly-priced. They describe the menu as "traditional British cuisine with a French flair added by owner and Chef Jean Bourdeau." The beer during our visit was local with a choice of Hobson's Best, Ludlow Gold and Wye Valley HPA. The Peacock also offers overnight accommodation. Given the pub's location, the three rooms are appropriately labelled Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Shropshire.
Wednesday August 22nd 2018
Despite the very hot and dry conditions in June and July, or perhaps because of the hot weather, we have a bumper crop of hops this year. The wires across our patio are drooping with the weight of the vines that all stem from one pot. It is also noticeable how large the hops are this year - the biggest we have seen in our garden.
The only drawback of such a magnificent display of hops is that it is all over too soon. After a couple of weeks when they look in their absolute prime, the decline is quite rapid and by the end of September it is time to think about taking it all down and cutting back for next year. If I am honest, it is a right pain in the arse to tidy up. And yet, during the following Spring, I am back training the plant up along the wires again. I have offered the hops to brewers for green hopping but nobody takes up my offer of free raw materials. Likewise, I have offered the whole crop to publicans in order for them to decorate their pub but still no takers. Still, it is lovely to sit beneath this plant on a warm summer evening and the smell is great.
Thursday August 30th 2018
Today marked the start of my training plan for next year's cycling sufferfest in the Pyrenees. I may have climbed the Col du Galibier and Mont Ventoux in the past but the schedule for this 'holiday' looks frightening - six days in which to climb the Lac d'Estaing, Col des Bordères, Col du Soulor, Cirque du Litor, Col d'Aubisque, Col de Spandells, Col de Couraduque, Hautacam, Luz Ardiden, Cirque du Tramouse, Col de Tentes, Col du Tourmalet, Col d'Aspin, Pyresourde, Val Luron and the daunting Col de Portet. This is seemingly the ultimate cycling boot camp.
I have relaxed a little since returning from The Alps a couple of weeks ago and already I am a total spanner on a bike. My legs were already feeling it on the climb out of Bewdley to Long Bank. When I went up Clows Top it felt like I had lead weights in my back pockets. 1,187 metres of climbing over 84.30km was a semi-decent workout for the first day's training but there is much work to be done before next year. I may even have to cut back on beer intake!
Friday August 31st 2018
Today was the day when we finally visited Boscobel House. Considering the tree is responsible for the Royal Oak pub name and hundreds of inn signs across Great Britain, it is amazing that we have not visited until now. A little cool for August, we had however a glorious day of sunshine so the ride out to Bishop's Wood was very enjoyable.
The perfect route would have seen us ride past pubs with a Royal Oak inn sign. Unfortunately, many of them have now gone. For example, we sailed past the former Royal Oak at Halfpenny Green, a fine old tavern that closed a few years ago and is now a private house. Stil, we cycled a very pleasant route through Upper Ludstone, Burnhill Green and Albrighton.
Next door to Albrighton is a church we had been meaning to visit for ages so we parked up at Saint Cuthbert's at Donington. After our recent tour of the open churches of the Teme Valley, it was disappointing to find the door locked at Saint Cuthbert's. With theft and vandalism of churches, it is a sad fact that the buildings are locked for protection. However, it is a sad indictment of the times in which we live. The churches of Teme Valley made a strategic decision to remain open as they felt it more important to have a spiritual sanctuary for all - I assume, however, they have locked up the valuables inside.
With the door locked, we could at least enjoy the exterior and churchyard of Saint Cuthbert's, a red sandstone building with ancient origins but mostly dating from the 14th and 15th centuries with a nave of the early 17th century. Following a partial collapse the tower had to be rebuilt in 1879-80, a time when the building was being restored along with the addition of the south porch. Being close to RAF Cosford, the churchyard has a number of military graves.
From Donington, we headed north through Shackerley and gradually up a pleasant quiet lane. It is possible to divert here in order to a look at White Ladies Priory, the ruins of the late 12th century church of a small nunnery of 'white ladies' or Augustinian canonesses. Indeed, if you are interested in the plight of King Charles following the Battle of Worcester, this is thought to be the hiding place he used prior to moving to the nearby home of the Giffard family.
Boscobel House is a short distance to the north-east. Following an unsuccessful attempt to cross the River Severn with Richard Penderel, Charles retraced his steps and took refuge at Boscobel. It was here that he met with William Careless, the man who convinced him that the house was not safe and, together, they hid in a tree within the park and grounds. Secreted within the branches and foliage, they allegedly observed troops of Parliamentary soldiers who were in search of the king. Charles is alleged to have later told Samuel Pepys about his day hiding in the tree. He reportedly told the diarist that a Parliamentarian soldier passed directly beneath the tree in which he was hiding. Following the Restoration, the tale became hugely popular, thus entering English folklore. The event was remembered annually during Royal Oak Day. Inn signs have traditionally portrayed the king or crown, or both, in illustrations featuring the Royal Oak. Just to the north of Boscobel House, at Bishop's Wood, there is a pub called the Royal Oak and it can probably claim to be the most apposite place to bear this sign.
Just in case you are about to mount your bike and head to Boscobel House to see the tree in which King Charles ate his sandwiches whilst all around there was a chaotic search by the Parliamentarians, I am about to bring you bad news. The actual tree vanished a few hundred years ago because, so the story goes, tourists and trophy hunters cut off branches as souvenirs. As this was many years before online shopping, the thieves could not flog their booty on e-bay. However, the odd piece may have been traded during the Age of Enlightenment's version of car boot sales!
A second tree, known as the 'Son of Royal Oak' stood as the successor until it was damaged in 2000 during a violent storm in which many of its branches were lost. The tree has subsequently deteriorated so a third tree will become the focus of attention for tourists. This third tree is a descendant and has been grown from an acorn planted by the Prince of Wales in 2001, on the 350th anniversary of King Charles's cunning concealment.
After our visit I went on Trip Advisor to see what others thought of the place. You'e got to laugh at some of the stuff people post. For example, one bloke from Bromsgrove wrote: "The short walk to the Royal Oak is of course a must although, in truth there isn"t a great deal to see there." Other than an oak tree, what did he expect to see£ F.F.S. it's a tree.
The real reason I went to Trip Advisor is to look at the reviews of the café housed in the old stables of Boscobel House. As usual, there is moaning and groaning over petty things. However, we thought it was really good. I'm not sure why they have adopted a 1940s/war-time theme in a location steeped in much older history. Mind you, they seem to specialise in a meal that could have been served up in both periods .... stew! Having said that, I doubt if a vegan stew would have been on the menu during the blitz. They also had Boozy Beef and Chicken as options. The vegan version was great. Good tea too, plus a free top-up of the pot! Service was exemplary and worthy of a medal and bar from the king. Big band music is the soundtrack to your meal and there are vintage war-time periodals to browse. Oh, there is bike parking too. I was rather pleased to see the bread bin [pictured above] from the old bakery of Scribbans's once located in wonderful building at Hockley.
The cycle ride out to Boscobel House was lovely but the route back was exceptional. Narrow lanes, birds singing in the woods and hardly a car to be seen or encountered. We rode through Coldham, past Chillington Hall, whizzed via Gunstone and Codsall and skirted the Black Country conurbation via Trysull and Swindon. We decided to wait until nearer home before stopping for a couple of quickies. It has been a while since we patronised the Queen's Head at Wordsley, another pub in the growing empire of Black Country Ales.
Beer choice at the Queen's Head was very good and, hooray, they had a porter on sale. Oooh, I do like the dark side. The Dark Matter was quite excellent. The 4.4% blackcurrant porter was deliciously smooth. It is produced by the Vale of Glamorgan Brewery based in Barry. According to the company's official tasting notes, "it is easy going, rich and smooth with liquorice and chocolate notes from the complex dark roasted malt recipe, balanced perfectly by the late addition of Bramling Cross hops." I wouldn't argue with that description and am not surprised to learn that Dark Matter was awarded the Champion Beer of Wales accolade in 2015, 2016 and 2017.
Much as we liked the porter from Barry, we wanted to check out the two beers on sale from another part of Wales. The Mad Dog Brewery was established in 2014 at Penperlleni but it has taken us until now to see their ales on sale in a local pub. Perhaps we haven't been trying hard enough but, on the evidence of these beers, we'll be making more of an effort to track down their ales in future. The Bohemian Hipster, a 4.9% citrus number was very good but it was the weaker Third Eye Blind that was the star attraction at the Queen's Head today. We can remember back in the day when Oakham Ales first released their JHB to the world and we wondered how they packed so much flavour into a 3.8% beer. Heck, the Stonehenge Brewery went even further with their Lunch Time Special which took people by surprise when they saw 2.5% on the pump clip. In terms of punching above your weight, Mad Dog have come up trumps with Third Eye Blind which, clocking in at 3.8%, is bursting with flavour. The secret is the liberal use of Rakau hops from New Zealand, combined with American Chinook hops. Moreover, the great news for us is that the beer is vegan-friendly. This is a most wonderful creation of former home-brewer Alexis Jones, a man deserving of some brewing industry gongs.
Talking of back in the day, it has been a few years since we have been in the Queen's Head, a pub operated by Black Country Traditional Inns since 2013. I have fond memories of the place when it was part of the Holt, Plant and Deakin arm of Allied Breweries. That was in the late 1980s when getting into the boozer was akin to boarding a London tube train in the rush hour - the place was heaving at the weekend.
Black Country Traditional Inns normally refurbish their pubs in a homogenous fashion but the pub group seem to have left some of the old interior fabric in place - hence the legacy of those Holt, Plant and Deakin days can be seen dotted around the building. A dart board has survived in a part of the pub that is bar-like, though the interior is one big room with a central servery. Unlike many of the pubs within the Black Country Traditional Inns group, the Queen's Head has a food offering. But, hey, we're only here for the beer and, on the evidence of today's guest ales, the quality is good. A pub well worth nipping inside if you are in the Wordsley area.