Prague – Dresden by bike; with plenty of food, beer, entertainment and culture along the way

Prague: 'city of 100 spires' and one TV tower
Prague: ‘city of 100 spires’ and one TV tower

It had been a while, and the combination of time, slight loss of confidence, some level of fitness, a major house move and a myriad of other everyday impediments had all conspired, in varying degrees, against the organisation, determination and initiative required to put together a bike tour holiday.

The days of plotting routes, throwing a change of clothes, some waterproofs and a couple of spare tubes into my Orliebs, locking the front door and cycling off somewhere scenic seemed a long way in the past.  But still, the longing for that freedom, the opportunity to travel much further than possible on foot but still experience the immediacy of  scenery, flora and fauna and culture in a close and flexible way still lingered.

And so, after a hectic weekend of coordinating  onward and return travel, I signed up for the last place on Europe-Bike-Tours’ (EBT) final trip of the season from Prague to Dresden. Although very much a last minute decision and, even without too much scrutiny of the itinerary, this tour ticked all my boxes.

The wine town of Melnik on the confluence of the rivers Vltava and Labe

Prague and Dresden were two cities I had always wanted to visit; their Baroque splendour and influence throughout Central European history particular fascinations.  In addition, they could easily be incorporated into my favourite type of European long-distance rail trip, providing the opportunity to stop off in Amsterdam and Berlin en route.  And, with the clock rapidly ticking down to the removal of my treasured EU passport in 2019, it made sense to visit now, before the UK retreats into its self-imposed exile and travel restrictions are tightened.

Ready for the road? Vitek explains all!
Ready for the road? Vitek explains all…..

Perhaps, most importantly, this was a guided tour; so, I wouldn’t get lost, I wouldn’t need to carry all my stuff, I wouldn’t have to struggle with oily fingers and five tyre levers if I got a puncture and I wouldn’t need to worry about where I could eat, or stay. What not to like?

Having booked through a specialist outdoor tour company in the UK, I had never heard of EBT and had no idea what to expect. I needn’t have worried – although I do have to admit to a first night of slight anxiety, having received the details for the self-guided tour and no indication when I would be collected in the morning, but it was resolved quickly next day, without mishap, other than a missed breakfast! – the hire bike fitted perfectly, the luggage transfers operated like clockwork, with the back-up van always in proximity, not just in case of mechanical breakdowns, but also as a very welcome provider of fruit, water and chocolate throughout the day.

Cycling paradise: kilometres of flat, smooth, traffic-free paths. What not to like?
Cycling paradise: kilometres of flat, smooth, traffic-free paths. What not to like?

But our guides, Lukas and Vitek, were undoubtedly the piece de resistance: multi-lingual experienced cyclists, well-informed, charming, endlessly patient and positive, both possessed a diverse and impressive skill-set that ensured the tour ran efficiently, safely and provided constant points of interest.  But, equally importantly, their good humour, wide range of interests and engaging personalities enabled a diverse range of ages, nationalities and backgrounds to enjoy a very agreeable week off, as well as on, the bikes.

The mist rises on the Labe
The mist rises on the Labe

 

This tour linked two fascinating, vibrant cities with a route meandering along the Labe/Elbe, one of the great waterways of Europe, through some diverse and, at times spectacular, scenery.

But, although Prague, Dresden and the attractive border area of Czech/Saxon Switzerland, are established tourist areas, the start of the tour, to the north of Prague, passed through a region rarely visited by foreign tourists. One of the most interesting aspects of the trip was to wander around the small towns of  Melnik, Litomerice and Decin, noting their impressive architecture and the changes that had taken place in recent years.

Waiting for the ferry across to Hrensko and the spectacular Pravcicka Gate
Waiting for the ferry across to Hrensko and the spectacular Pravcicka Gate

The Labe/Elbe has throughout history witnessed the constant migration of people and goods.  Its strategic importance has also inevitably meant this region has suffered more from most in the turbulent history of Central Europe.  The detour to Terezin, originally a Hapsburg fortress that became a Nazi holding camp for Jews en route to concentration camps during World War Two, provided perspective and a tragic and recent reminder; the many castles  perched on the rocky outcrops high above the valley another legacy of the region’s tempestuous past.

The 75m long Bastei Bridge
The 75m long Bastei Bridge

 

The cycle route itself was to die for.  Used to everyday cycling in one of Britain’s biggest cities, where dedicated bike lanes are few and  often misused, where the holes in the road are as dangerous as the traffic and where you often feel every other road user is out to kill you, the long, flat, smooth, traffic-free stretches of tarmac path were heaven indeed.

As was the peace and serenity and the chance to glimpse a bird or squirrel and enjoy the subtle colours of early autumn. Berries and fruits were in abundance in the hedgerows, ripe and ready for jam/wine makers and birds alike.

Charismatic guides and mouth good food were two definite highlights of the tour
Charismatic guides and good food were two definite highlights of the tour!

Cyclists, like armies, depend on their stomachs and, on this tour, we were exceptionally well catered for. Both the lunch cafes and evening restaurants provided a range of local cuisine, and with meals in a chateau, brewery and the ride through two of the most renowned beer countries in the world, any thirst generated during the day was more than satisfied.

A few other personal highlights included: my room in the chateau, the ‘green’ ferry across the river, the walk up to Pravcicka Gate on the way to Bad Schandau, the market square in Pirna, beloved by Canaletto, and gaining my first glimpse of Dresden. the “Florence of the Elbe’, cycling along the banks and meadows of the river that has defined the city.

Interesting plant display in Bad Schandau
Interesting plant display in Bad Schandau

But above all, the trip  reminded me why I love cycle touring,  particularly this type of cycle touring, where everything else is taken care of and all I have to do is get on my bike and ride along excellent – preferably flat! – cycle paths to the next absorbing destination.

Many thanks to: Andy at Freedom Treks in Brighton who organised things in the UK; Vitek and Lukas for being such wonderful hosts and, finally, to all the other members of the group from various continents for being kind, supportive, interesting, great company and such fun.

 

The Baroque splendour of the Zwinger, Dresden
The Baroque splendour of the Zwinger, Dresden
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Snowshoeing in Abruzzo

Not many people would expect to find an incredible winter wonderland on the same latitude as Rome but, there again, not many people know anything much about Abruzzo, a mountainous area of great beauty about 130 miles due east of the Italian capital.

From the slopes of the Apennines to the Adriatic coast
From the slopes of the Apennines to the Adriatic coast

Nestled along the Apennine spine, this is an area of proud traditions, historic hill villages and simple, delicious food.  It also boasts snowy peaks, pristine pistes, abundant sunshine and an impressive winter sports season between January and April.

And just as Abruzzo is not generally regarded as a winter sports destination then, equally, my recent holiday would not fit the prototype of the traditional winter sports holiday.  I spent a week in early February at Kokopelli, a traditionally restored farmhouse perched on a hill overlooking the quintessential Italian village of Serramonacesca. Come the spring its extensive olive orchard will be dotted with delightful canvas bell tents, as well as a retro VW campervan.

You’re more than welcome to pitch your own tent, whenever in the year, but if camping in the snow isn’t quite your thing, there’s a comfortable, private, en suite room in the farmhouse and I spent the week in the cosy converted barn, complete with private, heated shower/toilet and fully equipped kitchen, snug under a luxuriously warm duvet each night in the pretty bedroom. Have a look here.

The heated barn: perfect for a winter stay
The heated barn: perfect for a winter stay

Run by two ex-pat Brits, Jacqui Dixon and Kev Price, now gone native in Abruzzo, Kokopelli is a low-impact, eco-friendly site and offers something different to visitors, whatever the season. Both Jacqui and Kev are experienced outdoor enthusiasts and will tailor an individual package for you, based on your budget, experience and ability level. They’ll guide you along their favourite routes during the day and introduce you to some old and romantic, vaulted restaurants in the evening.

“We’ve become real snowshoeing disciples and want to spread the gospel to as many people as possible,” explains Jacqui. “Abruzzo is ideal territory for snowshoeing, with superb, unspoilt scenery, good snow cover and plenty of sunshine. We know the area, can show you the best tracks, provide equipment, lifts to the slopes, instruction and all kinds of local information.”

Passo Lanciano, around 20 minutes drive from Kokopelli, boasts spectacular vistas, with the Adriatic coast easily visible on clear days, and is renowned for its good snow cover.  It certainly lived up to its reputation on my first day, as we parked the car, strapped on our snowshoes, or ciaspole as they’re known to the locals,  and simply clambered over three feet of snow at the side of the road on to deep, undisturbed powder.

 

Pristine pistes and sky to match
Pristine pistes and sky to match

The sky was a deep cornflower blue and with the temperature hovering around five degrees centigrade, it was soon time to shed some layers as we quickly worked up a sweat on the initial (and steepest) climb of the day. Take to the mountains, mid-week, early-season in Abruzzo and you pretty much have the slopes to yourself. The handful of skiers ascending the lifts were enjoying freedom from queues and miles of uncluttered, well-prepared pistes. Meanwhile, Fin the dog effortlessly led the way along the route, in between performing his very own canine-style Winter Olympics of rolling, burrowing and sliding down the snow.

Although quiet on a sunny Thursday morning, Passo Lanciano does not lack facilities, and its chairlift, eight ski lifts, 16 slopes, ski school, hotel and bars more than cater for the many locals and visitors from around Rome who, with their families, take to the slopes on winter weekends. And there are two extensive cross country circuits, as well as the many snowshoeing routes.

Nearby La Maielletta is a smaller resort but is served by several drag lifts and Blockhaus Italian Ski School  provides a comprehensive range of equipment for hire, as well as ski lessons for all ability levels.

Fin waits for the lift
Fin waits for the lift

Situated at the northern tip of Majella’s main crest, this is wolf country. You may not be lucky enough to glimpse this noble creature, but you could well spot some of the mountain hares, chamois, wild boar and magnificent raptors with whom it shares its habitat. On our way back, Jacqui pointed out a sanctuary for rescued wolves in Pretoro:

“Although terribly sad to see these majestic creatures in captivity, remind yourselves they are there because, for various reasons, they are unable to be returned to the wild,” she explained.

Abruzzo’s mountain resorts contain many attractive hotels, bars and restaurants and facilities are generally of a high standard.  However, one of the unique attractions of staying in this part of Italy is the opportunity to sample the hospitality offered in traditional villages, where many of the old stone buildings, often dating back to Medieval and Renaissance times, have been sensitively restored into comfortable hotels and restaurants.

A particular favourite is  Brancaleone  a converted seventeenth century farmhouse, perched in a spectacular setting in the nearby hilltop village of  Roccamontepiano. Our evening here, sampling the delicious menu, and enjoying impeccable service in front of a roaring log fire, was the consummate way to round off a superb Saturday in the snow.

Lunch always tastes better after a morning in the snow
Lunch always tastes better after a morning in the snow

But, this is Italy, where, whatever the location or size of the establishment, you will always be sure of delicious food, cooked traditionally and slowly from top class, often home grown, ingredients. This is the land, not of fast food, but of good food. Agriturismo Tholos – ‘custodian farmers’ who specialise in growing, cultivating and safeguarding the agricultural biodiversity of the grains, legumes, fruit and vegetables indigenous to the Majella – are common here and you can try some of their produce at Tholos in Roccamorice.

Abruzzo, indeed, is renowned for the variety of its dishes, so even between neighbouring villages there is often a wide diversification in recipes. From wine to truffles, olive oil to cheese, in Abruzzo you can look forward to a mouth-watering experience, often in an unusual setting. If you fancy some divine ravioli on your way back from the slopes, stop off in Pretoro, at I Rintocchi, a restaurant (literally) in a cave!

Later in the week, I took a day away from the slopes and explored some of the charming hill villages dotted around the region. Guardiagrele, with its displays of traditional, decorated iron work, proved an excellent place to pick up some delightful and unusual souvenirs.

Sunrise over Monte Amaro
Sunrise over Monte Amaro

Two days on,  as I luxuriated in temperatures of 15 degrees centigrade in Pescara, along the same Adriatic coast that is clearly visible from the peaks of Passo Lanciano, I reckoned that Abruzzo, in early February, was the ideal location for some snow, sun and sea. Throw in delicious food, good wine and warm hospitality and you have the perfect package for an unforgettable snowshoeing holiday.

 

FURTHER INFORMATION:

Snow resorts;

General Information for Abruzzo snow 

Other Majella resorts  

 

Food;

More information on Abrruzzo’s cuisine  

 

Getting There;

Serramonacesca is around two hours’ driving time from Rome and about 40 minutes from Pescara

Regular coaches run from Rome’s Tiburtina Station to Chieti and Pescara http://www.arpaonline.it/arpaonline/en/?page=or_peroma

Ryanair flies from London (Stanstead) to Pescara

If you have the time and like to travel sustainably, you can take the train from London (with a change in Paris) to Turin or Milan and then on to Rome or Pescara. Use Seat 61 to plan your journey

Kokpelli will pick up from Chieti and Pescara for a small cost and will help you with all the information you need to travel to Serramonacesca.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Siempre Bicycle Cafe, Glasgow

A bicycle cafe! Sounds like my Elysium: a vision of freshly-brewed coffee, artisan baking, all kinds of bicycles and bike memorabilia in an accessible urban space – where you can even park your own bike right next to your table. Probably  a delusion though, I mean no one place  could actually provide all my favourite things; could it?

Well yes. As soon as I entered Siempre Bicycle Cafe last week, all my habitual cautious pessimism evaporated  as I sensed the heady aroma of roasted coffee, noticed the cool retro cycling prints and was warmly welcomed  by the friendly staff. Invited to look around, things just got better: in addition to the combination of my favourite object and drink of choice, the cafe also offers bike maintenance, aims to attract and encourage women cyclists and stocks singular gear that is perfect for cycling but doesn’t look like cycling kit.

Located in Glasgow’s West End, right next door to Kelvinhall Subway Station, the cafe defines itself on its locally-sourced and organic produce, such as  Tapas breads and Dear Green coffee. It’s open from 6.30am, providing healthy breakfast options to hungry commuters and the cafe space can be hired for special occasions and celebrations.

And outside, once current construction work is complete, will be transformed into an inclusive space where commuters can leave their bikes, diners can relax in the sun and kids can learn to cycle.

Siempre is not just for cyclists though. The spacious interior is equally pram and luggage friendly and the free, fast in-house WiFI, makes the cafe ideal for impromptu meetings, as well as social and work related net surfing.

Combining my love of coffee, cake and bikes in some form has always been one of my life ambitions. While my aspirations remain firmly in the dream category for the moment, I’m more than happy to enjoy Siempre’s  excellent realisation of three of my favourite things.

On your bike, on foot, en route to and from the subway, to Kelvingrove or the Riverside, pop into Siempre and see how a derelict and unused city building can be transformed into a vibrant and co-operative urban space.

Any initiative that encourages and facilitates more people to cycle has to be positive and, when it also includes creamy flat whites, melt-in-the-mouth fudge and freshly baked bread, what’s not to like?

Well done Siempre, I’m already looking forward to my next visit.

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Ways to get More of Us Cycling, Part Two: Burn Calories, not Carbon

I promised some positive suggestions to encourage more people to get on their bikes last time, so what can be more agreeable than talking about food, and its many connections with cycling?

Squares of coconut ice, yum! And small enough to fit into your saddlebag

Cycling has a long association with food and nice places to consume it. The earliest organised cycling groups, such as the Clarion Club, routinely structured their rides round the availability of refreshment stops en route and the pattern continues today: the excellent independent cafe in my village recently extended to seven day opening largely because of the demand from the Sunday morning pelotons.

Having just returned from a breezy hour and half ride this afternoon, what kept me going through a sharp shower and some tricky road conditions was the prospect of a hot cup of tea and some delicious black jack millionaire’s shortbread (my baking, Dan Lepard’s recipe) on my return to a warm kitchen, with the aroma of slow-cooking chicken wafting from the Rayburn.

Yes, I know obesity is one of the most pressing problems facing us as a society but, let’s face it, obesity is not generally the result of treating ourselves to a few pieces of cake every now and again, particularly if it is home-baked from fresh, natural ingredients. The appalling level of obesity in the UK  today is more the result of an imbalanced diet largely composed of processed food, combined with an inadequate level of activity.

Cycling is one of the best ways to combat obesity as it can be enjoyed by virtually all age groups, it gets people out in the fresh air and is best appreciated in a social setting, so also encourages inclusivity. In addition, as a sustainable form of transport with no associated fuel costs it ticks the environmental and economic boxes as well.

But fighting obesity is not just about eating less; it’s about eating the right amount of good food and balancing that with burning an appropriate amount of calories. Trying to lose weight is a long, hard process and, despite what the ‘wonder diets’ say, there are no quick fixes, or miracle cures.

Homemade chocolate truffles

There always needs to be a light at the end of the tunnel, a treat at the end of a long, hard slog. Cycling burns calories, not carbon, and we should continue to celebrate its close connection with coffee shops and tea rooms: a calorific treat, in agreeable company at the end of an active day, can be an ideal way to encourage more people to take to two wheels.

This Friday it’s my turn to host the local Sustran’s volunteer group and, after a 20 odd mile circuit checking signage and considering improved re-routes, it’s back here for copious amounts of tea and coffee, fresh ginger and coffee, cake, freshly baked biscuits and what’s left of the mince pies – a true Boot and Bike Bake Off.

Just off to collect some eggs from my neighbour’s ultra free range hens who appear to have colonised my garden as well.

 

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Cafes on Sustrans Route 54: Burton on Trent to Lichfield

Now it looks as though summer might finally have arrived, what better excuse to get out in the saddle and enjoy the long, sunny days. And, of course, that little bit of extra effort can fully justify a well-deserved stop en route for a refreshing drink and tempting slice of cake.  The 15 mile stretch of Route 54 between Burton on Trent and Lichfield is an ideal ride  at any time of year and the route is well endowed with welcoming cafes, tearooms and pubs. Here are some of our favourites, riding north to south.

 

BARTON:

SKINNY KITTEN, 23 Main Street, Barton under Needwood, http://skinnykittencafe.co.uk 01283 711217

Great little cafe right on the route and almost at the half way point between Burton and Lichfield. Quirky and friendly, with delicious sausage sandwiches and cakes, classy coffee and always interesting soundtracks from the musical owners. Very bike friendly with secure racks round the back. Popular with cyclists, particularly on Sunday mornings. Open every day 9-5 (Sunday 10-4).

There are also two attractive pubs in the village main street; the Middle Bell http://www.themiddlebell.co.uk and the Three Horseshoes http://www.3horseshoesbarton.co.uk  Both serve excellent meals, welcome cyclists and have space in their gardens for bike storage. The Royal Oak, at the junction of The Green and Dogshead Lane is renowned for its beer.

 

ALREWAS:

CRACKPOTZ CERAMIC CAFE, 57 Main Street , Alrewas, http://www.crackpotz.co.uk 01283 792666

An interesting stop, especially if you have the time to hand paint a piece of pottery from their large range of ceramics! Although it can get busy during school holidays, cyclists and non-artists are made very welcome. Tea cakes are particularly tasty. Some space against front wall where bikes can be left relatively safely. Open Tuesday-Saturday 10-5, plus Mondays during February and October half terms.

THE VILLAGE RAINBOW, 136 Main Street, Alrewas, http://www.thevillagerainbow.com 01283 791373

A welcome new addition to the village is this original shop, selling design-led gifts, jewellery and fair trade products. It also contains a small tea room. Untested, as yet, by the local Volunteer Rangers, it’s on our ‘to-do’ list for the summer. Open Monday-Saturday 9.45-5.30 and 10-4 on Sundays.

THE GEORGE and DRAGON, 120 Main Street, Alrewas, http://www.georgeanddragonalrewas.co.uk  01283 791476

This historic building boasts one of the rare CTC Winged Wheel Plaques just above the front door. Landlord Graham welcomes all cyclists and you will be served with a good coffee any day from 11am, as well as the usual range of food and drink.

 

FRADLEY:

KINGFISHER CAFE, Fradley Junction,, Alrewas http://www.kingfisherholidaypark.com 01283 790407

A short detour from the route will bring you to the picturesque Fradley Junction, where the Trent and Mersey and Coventry Canals merge. The Kingfisher Cafe is just past the pub and actively welcomes cyclists, with racks outside the front. Tea cakes are also good here too; there’s WiFi and the cafe encompasses a small shop selling basics. Open 10-5 weekends between November to February (same times everyday March to October).

CANALSIDE CAFE, Fradley Junction, Alrewas 01283 792508

You’re certainly spoilt for choice at Fradley Junction, with another cafe just across the canal. Again, there is plenty of space for cycles around the cafe. Full English breakfasts are rated highly here. Opening hours are 10-3.30 daily.

 

LICHFIELD:

CHAPTERS RESTAURANT AND COFFEE SHOP, 19A The Close, Lichfield http://www.lichfield-cathedral.org/Visiting-Lichfield-Cathedral/chapters-restaurant.html  01543 306100 

And with Route 54 passing right by Lichfield Cathedral, where better to admire this magnificent 12th century Gothic edifice  than from the unique 13th century walled garden of the Chapters Restaurant in the Cathedral Close? There’s plenty of room inside too when the weather is inclement and Chapters always extends a warm welcome to cyclists, including Sustran’s local Volunteer Rangers for their monthly meetings. Open 9-4 (winter) 9-5 (summer) Monday to Saturday and 10-4 Sundays.

 

 

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Hedgerow Recipes

Now you’ve picked  your hedgerow fruit, here are some suggestions as to what to do with it.

Firstly, and most importantly, remember to wash it: anything near a road is liable to pick up pollution from vehicles, but crop spraying in fields is perhaps a bigger hazard. Although it’s tempting to eat brambles straight away, it’s even more vital to wash these first as they will not be sterilised by high cooking temperatures.

Brambles (wild blackberries) are probably the best known and most versatile hedgerow fruit and can be used in crumbles, fruit tarts and various other desserts, as well as being ideal for pureeing. Substituting around 50g of pureed brambles for raspberries makes a richer and deeper coloured top layer for coconut ice.

Coconut Ice

 

Elderberries are one of our most common hedgerow fruits, but are routinely ignored. The berries are too bitter to eat, but when boiled and sweetened, make a deliciously rich jelly, with a unique flavour. The great thing about jelly making is that you don’t need to core, or de-seed the fruit before boiling it.

1. Cut the berries off the stocks, add some apples (the humble crab apple is best, but ordinary cookers will do), chopped roughly, with cores and skin.

2. Cover with just enough water and boil gently until it resembles a soft pulp.

3. Strain through a muslin bag (jelly bag) – a clean linen tea towel will do – and allow to drip overnight. Avoid touching or moving it, or the jelly will tend to become cloudy.

4. Measure the liquid – as a general rule you need the equivalent amount of sugar, eg, 1pt liquid = 1lb sugar (preserving traditionally uses imperial measurements) – and bring to boil.

5. Add the sugar, then continue to boil till setting point is reached – best way is to use a jam thermometer, but test by putting a spoonful on a cold saucer to see if it wrinkles when you draw your finger across it, as a back up.

6. Bottle and cover immediately – make sure jars/bottles have been sterilised and are hot, otherwise the jars may crack and anything other than scrupulously clean jars will attract mould.

Elderberry Jelly

Rosehips and rowans can also be used in hedgerow jellies, but be careful with the rosehips as they should be chopped before boiling and, as their inner fibres contain irritants, it’s best to do this in a processor and handle them wearing gloves.

Sloes are just coming into fruit and you can pick them well into November. They look like tiny purple damsons, but as they cling to blackthorns, take care when you pick them. They make a deliciously rich (and potent) liqueur type drink, the best recipe I’ve found being an adaptation of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s damson vodka.   Make it now for drinking next Christmas (allowing yourself a taster or two on bottling, of course). Makes around 1.5 litres. 1kg sloes, washed 500g sugar 1 litre vodka

  1. Prick each sloe several times with a pin, then transfer to a large, clean Kilner jar, demijohn or other suitable glass container with a tight-fitting lid or stopper.
  2. Add the sugar, pour in the vodka, seal and leave in a cool place away from direct sunlight.
  3. Every week or two, turn the jar on its head, then back again.
  4. After six months, strain the liquid through several layers of muslin, then bottle and seal tightly.
  5. Leave for at least another six months. It will be even better after two years – or more – provided you have the patience.
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Make the most of Sustrans Cycle Routes this Autumn

We all know that Sustrans routes are great for getting from A to B safely, healthily and scenically, helping you to keep fit and do your bit for for the environment at the same time. But, they also have other attractions, particularly at this time of year.

This hasn’t been the best of summers, but one of the few benefits of the rain and lack of sun in June and July is that the hedgerows are still heavy with fruit: brambles, rose hips and even elderberries that usually ripen six to eight weeks ago, are still there.

Red Rowan berries in fruit

And as many Sustrans routes run along old railways and canal towpaths – ideal hunting grounds for hedgerow fruit – you’ll be spoilt for choice.  Even when the route runs along a country lane, you’re still in the driving seat, so to speak, as you can cycle further away from the half a mile radius out of the villages and car parks, which is as far as most of the pedestrian and car driving fruit pickers get to.

Normally I find mid to late August as the best time for the blackberry harvest, but walking the West Highland Way (which shares Sustrans Route 7 for parts of the route) in early September I was amazed at how many wild brambles  were still to ripen.

Nearer home, Route 54 between Burton and Lichfield, is (or was until I gathered the elderberries)  ideal hedgerow territory, running parallel to the Trent and Mersey Canal for a few miles and then along some high-hedged lanes.

So, pack some plastic bags in your panniers and see what you can find in the hedgerows, – but hurry because as the sun weakens, any fruit that is left will rot quickly. Blackberries will be past their best, but slows are just beginning to ripen – add sugar and a bottle of vodka/gin, leave in a dark place for as long as you can – and they make a deliciously rich (and potent!) liqueur.

Elderberries make a full-bodied (and equally potent) wine, or can be boiled up with crab apples and rose hips to make a delicious jelly.  (Recipes to follow in next post.) You can even use rowan berries, as well, but do take care and if you’re not too sure of your berries, err on the safe side with those you are familiar with.

So, in a few months time you can indulge in some mouthwatering jellies and agreeable drinks, without guilt, knowing you have picked, delivered and cooked them, all by your own efforts. Bon appetite!

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Boot and Bike Literature

Winter Reading List

The shortest day is almost upon us and this, the  darkest time of the year, usually with the  worst weather and the most chance of colds and ‘flu, is also the time of least opportunity for most of us to get out and about.

But equally, it’s the ideal time of the year to plan for the spring/summer; next year’s holiday; a wish, or intention, of Munros to bag, coast to coasts to conquer, long distance trails to attack.  Therefore, to keep us going over the winter, to recreate our experiences in sunnier climes and times, to find out more about places we want to visit, or re-visit, many of us spend more time reading about the great outdoors during the gloomy months.

But  what do we read to keep our umbilical cord connected to the mountains, coasts and wildlife beyond our artificially warm and bright winter quarters?

Obviously, guidebooks, Rough, Blue and of other hues, for specific areas,  plus cycling, walking and climbing handbooks, as well as  factual information on wildlife, history, food, culture and topography will be obvious starting points. But, it was a childhood consumption of classics like, Ring of Bright Water and Tarka the Otter,that sparked my love of wildlife and determination to visit Skye/Knoydart and Devon respectively. Equally, the Iliad and Odyssey triggered a grander plan to explore Greece and her islands.

A Coffee, A Cake and a Book

Well written (auto)biographies, particularly when they are first hand accounts of pioneers in fields like climbing, walking and cycling, are often worth reading.  Jock Nimlin’s May the Fire Always be Lit tells  how, in the 1930s, young workers from the Glasgow area escaped unemployment and harsh living conditions through walking, cycling and climbing, in the Trossachs and beyond, often equipped only with working boots and washing lines. Gwen Moffat, another climber, but from a completely different background, recounts her experiences as one of the few women on the summits in the 1940s and 1950s in Space Below my Feet. For present day cyclists (and anyone else interested in a good book), Rob Penn’s It’s All About the Bike has to be a required read.

But, for me, a good novel has always been the best introduction to the area in which it is set. A superficial selection could include:
North East Scotland in Sunset Song; the Cotswolds in Cider with Rosie; Yorkshire Moors in Wuthering Heights; the Trossachs in Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novels; the Cornish coastline in Rebecca; Exmoor in Lorna Doone, Dorset in Far from the Madding Crowd, Tess of the d’Urbervilles et al;  and Sweden Norway and Denmark in just about any Scandinavian crime novel!
And, of course, we can add Wordsworth’s poetry for the Lake District, Burns for South West Scotland and Owen Sheers for Wales.

That said, you don’t need to spend all of the winter months wrapped in a book. When you do have a few hours spare over a weekend, or in the Christmas holidays, why not plan a literary-themed series of urban walks and cycles?

 
 

Winter in the City

Charles Dickens’ London; Ian Rankin’s (Rebus’s) Edinburgh;  Colin Dexter’s (Morse’s) Oxford; James Joyce’s  (or Wilde’s, or Synge’s, or Yeats’) Dublin; Alasdair Gray’s Glasgow come immediately to mind.

Recently, the Ramblers organised a series of walks based on films set in London, including  an Ealing comedy circuit, and East End gangland route. Well on that theme, how about a Shane Meadows’ inspired mystery tour of the East Midlands?

However,  if you like your  pre-Christmas jaunt to be somewhere a little more magical than Uttoxeter, then what about a visit to the canals and medieval markets In Bruges, or make a Killing on some of those suddenly-trendy woolly jumpers in Copenhagen?

Add in a few favourite TV series – a Foyle’s War reconnaissance of the Sussex coast, or a Wycliffian trip around Cornwall perhaps – and the possibilities are endless.

More darkness means less time in the great outdoors over the next few months, but more time for reading and catching up with the latest movies and those you’ve missed. And remember, as with your trips to the great outdoors, your literary themed walks and cycles should always be planned around an appetising, calorie-fuelled pub/cafe stop. 

What’s not to like?

Share your suggestions here for more Boot and Bike literature, or literary-themed trips.

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Autumn in the Country and in the City

Autumn, in particular October, is  ideal  for a short break. But perhaps time and money are a bit short and you can’t spare more than a few days away; not enough to enjoy some sunnier climes?

Last Rays of Afternoon Sun

No problem, stay in Britain, make the most of the daylight before the clocks change, enjoy the changing autumn colours and, if the weather turns inclement, you can easily spend a day in a nearby city, or local attraction.  Britain in autumn is perfect for a few days away where you can combine some cycling, walking, climbing, photography in the countryside, with a cultural, foodie, or chilled-out few days in the city.

One great advantage of our crowded island is that many of our major urban areas are cheek by jowl with national parks and areas of national beauty: think Sheffield/Manchester and the Peak District; Bristol and Exmoor; Glasgow and the Trossachs;  Edinburgh and the Pentlands. 

Autumn Colours

Even the sprawling West Midlands conurbation has the Malverns and the Cotswolds on its doorstep and woodland Surrey, the Chilterns and the south coast can be easily reached from Greater London.

But what to pack; particularly for us eco-conscious, self-sufficient travellers, who have to carry our needs for all eventualities on our backs, or bikes and on public transport? You need the footwear and outwear for protection in the great outdoors, but you don’t want to look like an outdoor gear geek as you sip your flat white in Convent Garden.

It’s a hard call,  but essentially the same rules apply as outlined in KIT,
http://www.bootandbike.co.uk/sample-kit-lists/   http://www.bootandbike.co.uk/kit/what-to-take/
but, on a smaller scale.

Sunset through the Trees

The key is, like with all packing, to try to take multi-purpose garments and, to be fair, the look, quality and weight of outdoor gear has improved immeasurably over the last few years. Merino wool tops, such as Icebreaker, look good enough to wear out or indoors, and merino also has the priceless asset of lasting several days without offensive odours.  Similarly, ultra-lightweight down (and some man-made alternatives), like those by Rab, now are stylish enough, and in sufficiently pleasing shades, not to look out of place in city streets.  And if it’s wet, wear your wet gear: if it throws it down, nobody cares much what you look like; hillside or city street.

Jurassic Coast in Autumn

This first “rule’ is generally to wear your “active” gear and footwear  (usually because it’s the bulkiest) when you travel to your destination.  This can result in some amusing scenarios: once, having secured a reasonably-priced first class ticket and resplendent in lycra and cycling helmet, I was initially blocked from entering the posh end of the train by an attendant who told me: “This is a first class coach madam.” When I replied that I had a first class reservation and offered to show him my ticket, he apologised and said: “I thought you were off on your bike, not travelling first class!”

Above Dunoon, Cowal Peninsular

So, other than specialised activity kit, what else to take?
Essentials: sleepwear, something to lounge about in, underwear and toiletries – if you’re staying in a hotel, b&b etc, it’s a good idea to check in advance what toiletries they provide as it can save considerable weight and bulk.

For trips of up to a week, I now organise my gear into: jeans/leggings, couple of tee shirts, tunic, sweater, comfortable lightweight shoes – obviously amend as appropriate.

Up to the Long Mynd

These I can pack into a small, lightweight wheeled bag, with waterproofs, hat, gloves, water bottles and the like in a 20 litre backpack. Thus, I can carry my luggage easily and have enough adaptable gear to keep me dry and warm on the hills, but stylish enough to look reasonably cool in a cafe, or shop, museum or cinema.

Go ahead, take advantage of the autumn kaleidoscope in the woodlands, enjoy the hills and mountains before winter sets in.

Autumn Sunset

But check out the exhibitions, movies and best eats in nearby cities as well to ensure you  make the best of Britain this autumn.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/interactive/2011/jan/07/britain-best-budget-eats-restaurants-cafes has a really useful list of budget eats in towns and cities across the country: I haven’t tried them all, but those I have in Glasgow, Birmingham and Central London haven’t disappointed.

 

Some Boot and Bike recommendations for this autumn:

Edinburgh and the Fife coast:  check out some of the classic books set in Auld Reekie 
http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/2011/oct/12/top-10-books-literary-edinburgh?INTCMP=SRCH  and the Guardian’s interactive guide to the city
http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/series/edinburgh-city-guide

Head out by train over the Forth Bridge (or cycle out over path beside the road bridge)
http://www.sustrans.org.uk/sustrans-near-you/scotland/easy-rides-in-scotland/edinburgh-to-the-forth-road-bridge
towards Dunfermline and Kirkcaldy. Cycle, walk along the coastal path   http://www.fifecoastalpath.co.uk/
to  Anstruther – visit the award-winning fish restaurant 
http://anstrutherfishbar.co.uk/index.html  –  then on to St Andrews and its university and world-famous golf course   
http://www.saint-andrews.co.uk/staindex.html

Birmingham and Shropshire: you’ve still got time to sample some food and drink at the city’s 10 day Food Fest  http://whatson.visitbirmingham.com/food-fest-137426262
From the end of the month, try to catch the Lost in Lace exhibition 
http://whatson.visitbirmingham.com/lost-in-lace-588181948
Trains from the city’s New Street station take about an hour to Shrewsbury
http://tickets.londonmidland.com/lm/en/JourneyPlanning/MixingDeck  Arriva Trains Wales  http://www.buytickets.arrivatrainswales.co.uk/advancedsearch.aspx also travel to Shrewsbury and thence Church Stretton, Craven Arms and Ludlow. Marvel at the expansive views from the top of the Long Mynd, then restore your calories with a trip to the foodie heaven of Ludlow   
http://www.ludlow.org.uk/fooddrink.html

Glasgow and the Cowal Peninsular: Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum is currently rocking to the AC/DC exhibition.http://www.glasgowlife.org.uk/museums/our-museums/kelvingrove/whats-on/exhibitions/AC-DC-exhibition/Pages/default.aspx
Or check out how eminent writer/artist  Alasdair Gray, depicted life in the city in the 1970s in a major exhibition at the Gallery of Modern Art http://whatson.seeglasgow.com/Event41951
From the city take the train to Gourock, then ferry to Dunoon 
http://www.western-ferries.co.uk/  Bike  through the beguiling Benmore Botanic Gardens   http://www.rbge.org.uk/the-gardens/benmore   and on to enjoy the autumn colours in Glenbranter Forest, where there is also the opportunity for some off-road biking http://www.forestry.gov.uk/website/recreation.nsf/LUWebDocsByKey/ScotlandArgyllandButeArgyllForestParkGlenbranterForest

Newcastle and the Northumberland coast: you’ll never short of somewhere to go, or see, in Newcastle.  This autumn, the city hosts an international print making exhibition, before the Baltic hosts the 2011 Turner Prize  http://www.newcastlegateshead.com/whats-on/baltic-presents-turner-prize-2011-p520731#productlist=/whats-on/baltic-presents-turner-prize-2011-p520731&proxprodtype=
The 100mile Northumberland Coast is a designated Area of Outstanding National Beauty (AONB)  http://www.northumberland-coast.co.uk/ with award-winning beaches, castles and wildlife. Walk the 64 mile coastal path and use     http://www.northumberland.gov.uk/default.aspx?page=6898 to help you get about without using a car.

Exeter and the Jurassic coast: the city’s beautiful St Peter’s Cathedral is well worth a visit http://www.exeter-cathedral.org.uk/ and the Bike Shed Theatre    http://www.exeterviews.co.uk/whats-on/event/74/henry-v.html   presents a critically-acclaimed production of Henry V on October 21st-22nd.
The city sits at the west end of the Jurassic coast: the Dorset and East Devon Coast World Heritage Site is England’s first natural World Heritage Site – it covers 95 miles of truly stunning coastline from East Devon to Dorset, with rocks recording 185 million years of the Earth’s history  http://www.jurassiccoastline.com/
Walk sections of the coastal path, visit the Swannery at Abbotsbury, marvel at Durdle Door rock arch, hunt for fossils on Charmouth beach, or take short detours to Bridport and Thomas Hardy’s Dorchester.   And, you don’t need a car; instead use the excellent X53 bus that links Exeter with Poole at the easterly end of the coast   
http://lulworthcovebedandbreakfast.com/lulworth-cove/buses-jurassic-coast.htm

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Discover Dumfriesshire: Walk/Cycle

 
View from Kirkland Hill, Kirkconnel

Where? Kirkconnel/Sanquhar, north Dumfriesshire

 

How? train from Glasgow Central (or Carlisle if travelling north) to Kirkconnel/Sanquhar, return buses from Wanlockhead/Thornhill/Carronbridge, if needed, run to Kirkconnel and Sanquhar

Why? one of Scotland’s best-kept secrets; the beautiful, unspoilt Nith valley, undiscovered by tourists, ideal walking/cycling country, direct access to Southern Upland Way http://www.southernuplandway.gov.uk/cms/  on National Byway cycle route  http://www.thenationalbyway.org/welcome.asp  birthplace of the bicycle  http://www.drumlanrig.com/visit-drumlanrig-castle/drumlanrig-castle/cycle-museum   yet, within easy access of Glasgow and Carlisle.

But: very isolated outside of the villages, can be bleak with high rainfall and infrequent transport, so vital to check timetables and plan in advance; proper equipment, sufficient supplies and spares are vital

Info: routes shown on maps; OS Explorers 320, 321, 328, 329

Terrain: steep gradients away from valley floor, often wet and muddy

Refreshments: hotel, pubs, cafes in Sanquhar and Thornhill, tearoom at Drumlanrig Castle http://www.drumlanrig.com/visit-drumlanrig-castle   . Blackaddie Country House Hotel in Sanquhar http://www.blackaddiehotel.co.uk/  is located in beautiful surroundings and has gained a very good reputation for its food

Baker's Burn, Kirkconnel

Separated by the bleak and brooding Lowther Hills from its more famous neighbour, the Clyde, the River Nith follows a southerly course from its source in East Ayrshire to the Solway Firth. Best known for its excellent trout and salmon fishing and associations with Robert Burns, the majority of its valley lies in Dumfriesshire; from the bleak, open vistas of Upper Nithsdale, through a dramatic, gorge-like stretch between Mennock and Carronbridge – Highlandesque, in terms of its spectacular  beauty – to the wide flood plain of Dumfries and thence into the Solway.

This is undiscovered Scotland; usually hastily bypassed on the M74 and West Coast Main Line 15 miles or so to the east.  Undiscovered, of course, also means unspoilt and non-commercialised.  But, linked by rail to Carlisle and Glasgow, with direct access to the Southern Upland Way and with world-class on and off-road cycling opportunities, it’s an excellent area for booters and bikers, with plenty of history, culture and even some foodie options thrown in.

Sunset over the Nith Valley

 It’s also a remarkably easy area to get to: change at Carlisle – about four-five  hours from London and around three from the Midlands on the West Coast Main Line – take the service to Glasgow via Dumfries and you arrive in Sanquhar/Kirkconnel (both villages have stations) in just over an hour. Similarly, the same service in reverse from Glasgow takes about 90 minutes.

Increasingly popular with off-road bikers as it’s right in the heart of the Seven Stanes series of world-class MTB courses, www.sevenstanes.org.uk  this corner of SW Scotland is also ideal for road cycling and touring and every type of walking, from the most testing long distance footpath in Britain to riverside rambles http://www.uppernithsdale-events.org/walking   A 15 mile trail focusing on the coal and lead mining heritage of the area has recently been opened linking Kirkconnel to Wanlockhead. It crosses rough moorland, with some spectacular views, but is strenuous, so proper equipment and hill-walking experience are necessary  http://www.geolocation.ws/nearby/en?loc=55.420516,-3.823472

Although not renowned for copious amounts of sunshine  –  it can be bleak and cool even in the middle of summer – it is usually mild and the area’s plentiful rainfall results in a lush, emerald vista of deciduous woodlands and fast flowing streams (as well, regrettably the ubiquitous midges).  It’s refreshingly untouristy and the evening light lingers long, from April right through to August.

Sanquhar boasts the oldest post office in the world http://www.networkun.co.uk/business/sanquharPO.html   and the town holds a historic Riding the Marches every year http://www.sanquharridingofthemarches.com/

The area, generally, is noted for its salmon fishing and, for admirers of Scotland’s national bard, it is smack in between  Robert Burns’ birthplace  near Ayr, and his grave and mausoleum in Dumfries.

St Conal's Cross

Definitely worth a look is the beautiful and historic church in Kirkconnel that dates from the early 18th century. However, the first church in the village is thought to have been established by St Conal in the eighth century.  Closed down during the period of Covenanter unrest in the 1680s, a Celtic cross now marks the site, about two miles out of the village, and a  recent renovation project has restored the site of the original kirkyard. http://www.kirkconnel.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=81&Itemid=211

 Both Kirkconnel and Sanquhar have strong historic links with the Covenanters – people in Scotland who signed the National Covenant in 1638 opposing any interference by the Stuart kings in the affairs of the Scottish Presbyterian church. In 1680 the preacher Richard Cameron, issued the famous Sanquhar Declaration, renouncing allegiance to Charles II. This, and a second declaration in the town, by James Renwick five years later, set out the basis of future religious freedom in Scotland.

http://www.covenanter.org/CivilGovt/cameronandsanquhar.htm

 

Boot and Bike Options: 

i) walk along the Southern Upland Way out of Sanquhar east towards Wanlockhead – about 8 miles

From Sanquhar station follow the signs for the Southern Upland Way east.  http://www.southernuplandway.gov.uk/cms/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=119&Itemid=322  Make sure you visit the award-winning Museum of Lead Mining  http://www.leadminingmuseum.co.uk/home.shtml  and return by bus to Sanquhar railway station. http://www.travelinescotland.com 

Sanquhar to Wanlockhead

ii) walk/cycle from Sanquhar along minor roads and forest tracks to Kirkconnel and back – about 11 miles, off-road bike needed

From Sanquhar station go down Station Road, cross the A76, then straight head along Blackaddie Road. Cross the bridge and keep straight ahead. The road then follows Euchan Water past a lovely waterfall. The scenery is superb and after about two miles you will reach a coniferous plantation.  Cross a ford (you may need to lift your bike over a gate here), keep on the track through the rest of the trees, descend to cross a burn and follow the track through the next plantation. Keep on the track until a cattle grid, turn right, cross another grid and then continue along the side of Corserig Hill.  Keep going until the track splits, bear left on the well-defined path and follow this through Librymoor Plantation until you see Kirkconnel Cemetery in front of you. Turn right on to the minor road that runs behind Kirkconnel and continue on this for approximately three miles. At Blackaddie Bridge, turn left and follow  the road back into Sanquhar.

Sanquhar - Kirkconnel - Sanquhar Off-Road

 ii) cycle from Sanquhar to Drumlanrig Estate near Carronbridge – 17-20 miles, depending on route, off-road bike needed if riding the forest trails at Drumlanrig

Follow above directions from Sanquhar station to Blackaddie Bridge, then turn left and follow the minor road with the River Nith on your left; past Menock and Eliock Wood the valley is spectacular. At Burnmouth the road heads south, away from the river. Continue for about half a mile to Burnsands where you can either turn left and follow the road direct to Drumlanrig Castle (about 2-3 miles) or go straight on for about five miles, where the road then loops round back to Drumlanrig. http://www.drumlanrig.com/drumlanrig-outdoor-activities/cycling 

Visit Drumlanrig Castle  http://www.drumlanrig.com/visit-drumlanrig-castle sample the  mountain bike trails (variety of routes available, off-road bike needed), pop into the Scottish Cycle Museum (Kirkpatrick MacMillan, a Drumlanrig blacksmith, rode a  bicycle he invented the 60miles to Glasgow in 1839, heralding the age of the bicycle),  http://www.drumlanrig.com/visit-drumlanrig-castle/drumlanrig-castle/cycle-museum or enjoy the many walking routes through Drumlanrig forest.

Sanquhar to Drumlanrig
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