If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Wednesday 30 September 2009

Police finally act

Good to see that the Police are taking action to protect a family that is suffering from threats and hostility from aggressive neighbours.

The family accused of tormenting Fiona Pilkington and her disabled children have received death threats, it was claimed yesterday, as police patrols were stepped up near their home.

Police officers drove past the Simmons family home at least 11 times and made a 30-minute visit to the home of Dorothy Simmons, the matriarch of the family.

Shame they couldn't have been as conscientious with the poor lady who torched herself and her daughter in despair.

In contrast, the police log of the 33 telephone calls that Ms Pilkington made about death threats, children lighting fires on her property and her son being attacked show that she received as few as eight visits, sometimes days after the event.

Why is it that, despite all the rhetoric, socialists (and their agents, for that is what the Police now are) always side with the bully?

Tuesday 29 September 2009

The train's to blame

This was from last week's Times:

MINISTERS are considering making motorists legally responsible for accidents involving cyclists or pedestrians, even if they are not at fault. Government advisers are pushing for changes in the civil law that will make the most powerful vehicle involved in a collision automatically liable for insurance and compensation purposes.

And from the BBC today:

Three people in a car have been killed following a collision with a train at a level crossing in the Highlands.

So when can we expect to see Scotrail prosecuted? I mean, big nasty powerful train against feeble little innocent car ... Or does this reasoning only work in one direction - against the motorist?

Monday 28 September 2009

Feuilles Mortes

Love the smell.

Today, after dutifully cutting the lawn for probably the ninth-last time this year, I raked up all the fallen leaves and had a bonfire. One firelighter, one match, all gone. I'll probably have to do it again in a couple of weeks after the rest of the leaves fall, but it was a very pleasant activity. It makes a lovely thick yellow smoke which lingers about in the still air and reminds you of all your autumns past: a kind of nasal reminder to put the thermal linings back in the textile suit, break out the waterproof gloves, spray the bike with WD-40 and prepare to get wet.

And then I came into the house and saw this on the consistently funny Daily Mash.

NEIGHBOURS who borrow each other's gardening equipment will have to be registered with the National Lawnmower Sharing Agency, it emerged last night. The government is to introduce tough new regulations after a police officer from Milton Keynes loaned her colleague a Flymo Vision Compact 380 without telling anyone.


Gun ownership

A sad accident with an air pistol in South Wales, reported here.

A ten-year-old boy has died after being shot in the chest with his father’s air pistol during a game of cowboys and Indians. Rhys Johnson is believed to have taken the gun from the garage where it was kept to play in field behind his home near Swansea in South Wales. Friends said that he fired the weapon first then handed it to a 12-year-old friend who accidently shot him.

Next up - a queue of well-meaning people calling for such things to be banned. Well, before you add your signature to the petition, there are some things that are puzzling me a little.

  1. Rhys is thought to have taken the weapon from his father's garage. If he was able to do that, then the gun was not securely stored. All air weapons should be under lock and key, and kept well away from curious 10-year-olds. First mistake.
  2. The boy was injured by two pellets in the chest, which damaged his heart and lungs. Now, all air pistols that I have seen have to be broken and reloaded with a fresh pellet, a process that would take even an experienced shooter ten or fifteen seconds. This implies either that the second shot was deliberate, or that the weapon was capable of shooting more than one pellet from a magazine and the second shot was likewise accidental. From the initial reports, the incident seems to have been understood as an accident by all who attended, so the first seems unlikely. Which leaves an air pistol with a multi-shot magazine. While these may or may not be legal (I would doubt it), it is a highly unusual weapon - I have never seen one for sale in the UK.
  3. The pellets penetrated the boy's chest with enough force to damage both heart and lungs. A legal air pistol is limited by law to 6 foot-pounds of muzzle energy. Anything above that is illegal, even with a firearms licence. And, to be honest, 6 ft/lb is not a great deal. It will drop a sparrow at 15 metres (if you can hit it - air pistols are rarely very accurate), but a solid human being, even a 10-year-old one, is a much tougher prospect. I have been hit with an air-pistol from about 10 feet away (one of the benefits of growing up in Leeds), and it was a sting, no harder than a thrown pebble. I would very much doubt if a legal air pistol could penetrate a human rib-cage with enough force to kill, even if held against the skin.
So, my guess is that the air pistol was in fact an illegally-powerful weapon, possibly with a multi-shot magazine and in any case highly unusual. It was kept insecurely, and the boy knew where it was kept. Sad to say this, but if the pistol had been legal, and stored sensibly, this accident would never have happened. When I used to own a shotgun, it was kept in a locked metal cabinet, bolted to a wall, and with three high-security keys, and even my wife didn't know where I kept them.

This won't stop lots of people calling for a ban on all air weapons. They will fail to see that the existing law is adequate - it is the application of the law that is at fault. This was the case with Thomas Hamilton, who massacred 16 children and a teacher at Dunblane in 1996, a case which ultimately led to a ban on all handguns. If warnings had been heeded and the existing law applied, Hamilton would not have had access to the weapons that he used. A classic case of shutting the sitting-room door after the horse has bolted from the stables.

If my guess is right, a call for a ban on air weapons will be pointless, as the weapon in question was already illegal. But such a ban will have a huge negative effect, ensuring that even air guns are the sole preserve of criminals. Young people will only ever encounter guns as part of a video game, and will never learn to handle real ones safely. There will be no opportunity. And, until guns are banned from the world completely and there are none left - don't hold your breath waiting - that is a less than desirable situation.

Sunday 27 September 2009

Warm hands verified

Anna had an urgent need for something from Tesco this afternoon, so I selflessly volunteered to brave the mild afternoon and see to it. Well, I tested the heated grips, and they work very well. My hands were thoroughly toasty within half a mile. In fact, I put the setting to 'Low' and they were still toasty. I'm normally a bit wary of a twistgrip that doesn't snap shut the moment you take your hand off it, and last night mine seemed a bit sticky. However, in practice, it's slightly harder than before, but not intrusively so. Left alone, it will return to closed, although not as quickly as before. All was well. The only downside I can see is that the bigger grips make my hands ache slightly. I expect I will get used to that.

In the last couple of days, the bike has started backfiring when I close the throttle. It started with just a few small pops in the exhaust, but today it was a full-on artillery attack as I was coming down a steep hill in town on a closed throttle. Ka-pow! Ka-pow! This would normally be a sign of an air leak somewhere. The bike's exhaust headers were fairly rusty when I got the bike (and they sit in a direct spray of water from the front wheel), and that was over a year ago now, so my money is on a pinhole in one of the exhaust pipes. I'll have a good look tomorrow, but I may be purchasing one of that nice Mr Motad's stainless steel exhaust manifolds before too long. The exhaust 'silencer' can has already been replaced with a s/s aftermarket one, so not only will they match, they will look the biz too.

A country of criminals

No, not Government Ministers - I mean the rest of us. I was struck by a comment on this article on The Times website:

This government has created so many new criminal offences and civil penalties that it is delightful to see the Attorney General become a victim of its legislation. As a lawyer practising criminal defence I've been saying for years that it will in due course become the accepted norm in society to have a conviction or two. By 'criminalising' so many people (and in particular children), the rule of law is severely weakened and morality, good character and integrity become less and less important.

In reckon that only about 20% of the pressure to obey the law comes from the consideration of penalties for breaking it. The other 80% comes from the desire not to be seen to be a lawbreaker. In other words, when I think about what is stopping me robbing a post office and retiring on the takings, it is only partly about the prison that might follow (let's face it, without a criminal record, I reckon the chances of being caught would be small). Far more is the idea of having a criminal conviction to my name, and the prospect of that old-fashioned idea that we don't hear much about today - shame. (I am talking about deterrents here, before you leap in - I wouldn't rob a post office because in the first case it is immoral and wrong. I am talking only about the deterrent sanctions that society has to regulate itself.)

I think 'Chris the Brief' has it about right. While laws were few and generally agreed to be 'right' (such as those against murder, rape, robbery or fraud), comparatively few people were convicted of breaking them, and the majority of the population behaved itself, keeping well on the side of the law-abiding. The level of compliance is very high. But when laws multiply exponentially, as they seem to have done in the last ten years, more and more people will commit some kind of offence, even unwittingly, and the value of being in the innocent majority will be lost. Add to that the fact that a lot of the laws passed recently do not necessarily have the support of the majority of the public (such as the 'hate speech' laws or the smoking and hunting bans), and you have a recipe for a gradual decline in the general unspoken support for the rule of law that we once had.

When I was 18, and had been driving a car for a whole six weeks, I was caught speeding by a policeman with a speed detector gun. I was fined and got an 'endorsement', as we used to call them, on my licence. I had to deal with explaining it to my Dad, whose car it was, and the insurers, and so on. It was difficult, and I felt that I had transgressed in quite a serious way. I got another endorsement four years later, this time on a motorbike (biking readers will choke with laughter when I reveal that my only speeding conviction on two wheels was on a Jawa). This had to be declared every time I took out motor insurance, and there was a faint sucking of teeth at the other end whenever I mentioned it.

And after that - nothing. I held a clean licence for the next 26 years, and it was a source of pride. I used to enjoy the tiny little buzz that came whenever I had to tick a box for 'convictions' on things like insurance applications, and could tick the box marked 'none'. I passed my car and bike tests for the IAM and felt that I was a sensible and responsible motorist - one of the law-abiding majority. There was a certain sense of security in this, and also an internal pressure to keep it that way.

Then one night I was caught by a Gatso. I was driving up the A15 in Lincolnshire, returning my daughters to their Mum after a weekend away. We had stopped for a Big Mac in Lincoln, and were a bit behind schedule. There is a stretch of the A15 going past Waddingham airfield which had been reduced to 50 mph because the Red Arrows were based there, and there were a number of accidents through people looking at the sky rather than where they were going. The Red Arrows were long gone, but the speed limit remained (no-one should be surprised at this). And I broke it that night, recorded by a camera that didn't understand that 60 was quite safe on an empty road in good weather, in the way that a proper policeman might have done.

I didn't contest it, as I was sure I was guilty, but I was mightily pissed off by it - not because of the fine, but because I no longer had a clean licence. That was important to me. And then, a revelation. A couple of years later, I was invited by Saga to apply for their car insurance (yes, I had reached that milestone). I confessed my sins, and the girl on the other end of the phone dismissed it. "Don't worry at all." she said. "Most of our customers have at least one conviction. We don't bother about three points - start worrying when you get to nine."

That got me thinking. If everyone has three points, what't the problem? It's no longer seen as unacceptable, or a mark of anti-social behaviour - it's just something that everyone has, like underarm hair. So when those points passed away and I almost immediately got three more (which I contested, as I was certain I was not guilty*), it wasn't so much of a problem. In fact, my attitude now is - as long as it doesn't cost me money in increased premiums, I really don't care. Three points, six points, we've all got them, welcome to the club. Now it takes a drink-driving conviction to get people tut-tutting - but if the blood alcohol levels are reduced even further, how long before people are saying "Oh, drink-driving, yes everyone's got one of those."

If you extrapolate this experience onto the wider world of social order and the rule of law, I think it's pretty disturbing. Keeping a clean sheet is a massive incentive to stay on the right side of the law. So is the disapproval of other people when you transgress. If we pass so many laws that no-one can obey them all, then no-one can keep a clean sheet, and no-one minds when other people get caught out. Add to this the way that a lot of new laws are contentious, partisan or simply vindictive, and you have a recipe for anarchy.

An urgent task for the next Government (asuming it is not Labour) is to have a review of all the laws and regulations that have been enacted since 1997, and a bonfire of all those that are stupid, petty, vindictive or unfair. Hopeful? I'm not.

* How's this for justice? I was fined £60 for an SP30, if I didn't argue and paid up quickly. I genuinely believed that the machine was faulty (the date was right, but the time of the offence was a time when I was several miles away in a meeting, and also I was certain my speedometer read 31 mph at the time I was seen) and I contested it. They still found me guilty, but increased the fine to £90 and added £150 costs on top. So that's £60 for speeding, and £180 for having the bare-faced cheek to challenge the system. Imagine that in a 'developing' country - a system where you are given a punishment without any due process, and told it will be quadrupled if you protest your innocence. We'd be invading them to 'liberate' their people and 'give them the benefits of democracy' before you could say knife.

Saturday 26 September 2009

Warm hands, hopefully

I have spent today (yes, the whole of today) fitting some heated grips to the Yamahaha (so named as it is such a laugh).

I bought them yesterday from a dealer about 15 miles away from here. It's one of those shops where things are a bit dusty, and some of the bikes are a bit shabby, and there is always a cup of tea going on. Today I decided to fit them, so I took them out of the packet - which was a strangely easy thing to do. It just fell open in my hands, and I realised that someone had opened it before me. Then I looked at the contents, and the little plastic bag inside with all the screws and brackets and things had been ripped apart and was suspiciously large for what was inside. The instructions started with "slide the grips onto the handlebars using the glue supplied". No glue.

I went back to the shop (30 mile round trip), and took the remaining set as replacement. These had not been opened - I checked before I left. When I got them home - no glue. So I went into town (6 mile round trip) to get some suitably adhesive product. I got some "Universal glue - sticks anything to anything". I glued the grips on and started on the wiring. After half an hour, I checked how the grips were sticking. The left grip felt like it had been welded into place, but the right one was spinning uselessly around the bars, and as this is the throttle control, and therefore the Go command, this won't work. There is too much clearance between the grip itself and the throttle tube that it is supposed to be gripping, and the Universal adhesive didn't have the gap-filling properties that I had hoped for. So I resorted to Araldite. No going back.

So a job that should have taken a hour or two (with tea break) took me most of the day.

It's stuck well now, although it has made the throttle control a little stiff. It doesn't snap back when you take your hand off like it should. I think a bit of Araldite has got where it shouldn't. Still, it might work as a kind of cruise control. I'll give it a couple of days, and if it's not acceptable I will have another look. I'm sure there is an answer.

The grips are a little thicker than the old ones, and that will take a bit of getting used to, but its first test was a success, and a couple of minutes had the grips as warm as toast.

The "Temperature Control" sits quite neatly on the handlebar and doesn't get in the way of anything. It's the red and white thing in the photo below.

I also took the opportunity to fit some alloy bar-ends. The bike came with some aftermarket handlebars (nearly all used Yamahas do, as the original bars are made of toffee and bend if the rider sneezes). These were not the colour I would have chosen myself (a rather unpleasant metallic purple) but I'm not replacing them until there is a need. I got some bar-ends to match, on the in-for-a-penny principle) and now I think they look quite fetching. Certainly better than the gaping holes that were there before.

Colour scheme by Stevie Wonder. On drugs.

Friday 25 September 2009

Good work

I came across this while idly surfing this evening. I liked it enough to put it here.

"Reading a newspaper, I saw a picture of birds on the electric wires. I cut out the photo and decided to make a song, using the exact location of the birds as notes (no Photoshop edit). I knew it wasn't the most original idea in the universe. I was just curious to hear what melody the birds were creating."

Birds on the Wires from Jarbas Agnelli on Vimeo.

Winter prep

In between making a new garden door and doing the weekly shop, I have managed to get a set of heated grips for the Yamaha. I feel this is giving in, in some strange way. I have never suffered particularly from cold hands on a bike, and the Yam has some neat hand-guards that are supposed to protect your pinkies when you crash through the bushes off-road, which do a great job of keeping the wind off in normal riding. But having had the heated grips on the Honda, I found that they make a huge difference to riding comfort (and therefore safety) on those cold winter mornings and evenings. Yesterday's commute reminded me that I intended to get some for the Yam before the winter set in.

Luckily, my local bike shop had a set in stock of the very ones that I wanted to get, so they are now waiting to be fitted. With a bit of luck (i.e. if SWMBO doesn't find anything for me to do between now and then), they will be on the Yam by tomorrow night.

Step forward, Motrax Griptronics -

Thursday 24 September 2009

Auntumn's here

This morning was bright and sunny, and the journey to work on the bike looked as if it would be a pleasant one. Dry, check. Sunny, check. Warm? No.

I was glad I had worn my lined textile suit today, as the old jeans-and-leather-jacket combo would have frozen my nuts off. Only my hands (in lightweight summer gloves) were cold, but I think we have seen the last of the balmy weather we have had recently. I promised myself back in the Spring that I would fit heated handlebar grips to the Yam before Winter came again. I was reminded of that promise this morning. That's a job for the weekend, I think.

In the words of Ogden Nash:

Some people like Autumn.
Well, ought 'em or oughtn't 'em?

Good news

I'm just a little bit pleased with myself today. Regular readers will know that I am on reduced hours from my place of work, due to the recession and difficulties in the business, and I have been looking around for other work to make up the shortfall.

The local University (I think it's an ex-Polytechnic, but it calls itself a University, so I'll go with that) has found itself short of a lecturer in an area I happen to know quite a lot about, and at very short notice. An ex-colleague of mine works there and recommended my name. I've had an interview over the phone today, and they want me to start in October. It's only a couple of hours a week, and only for the first half of the academic year, but it's a start.

I was a teacher for 18 years, and a commercial trainer for another nine, so I am looking forward to getting back into the classroom. This time, it will be final-year degree students, which will be a little more demanding than previous positions, but I'm up for it.

I want this small start to lead to more, so I'd better be good ...

Wednesday 23 September 2009

Bikers killed in Italy

From here:

Three British motorcyclists have been killed and another is critically ill after a horror crash on a touring holiday in northern Italy. The riders collided head-on with a lorry carrying building material as they came out of a tunnel. They are thought to have been on the wrong side of the road.

Looks like two middle-aged couples - both riders killed, and one passenger. The other pillion is critically ill in hospital, but likely to survive.

From the ages of the riders (all in their 60s), they are unlikely to have been razzing around like hooligans. It seems, from the little we know, that the road entered the tunnel as a dual carriageway, but became a single carriageway at the exit. It is possible that the riders didn't realise this, and thought they were in the overtaking lane when they were, in fact, on the wrong side of the road.

Local councillor Bruno Firmani said:''We have had several complaints from motorists about the tunnel and the road in recent weeks. ''There is no doubt that it is confusing and I had tabled a question with the local road agency about the signposting on that stretch of road.''

Following on from my last posting, there may be a case that the highway authorities here were indeed negligent - if they knew there was a problem and did nothing about it. But that doesn't alter the fact that three people have died - the kind of people I might have been riding with - unnecessarily. In the final analysis, no-one is responsible for your safety but yourself. Foreign road layouts can be confusing to British eyes, and the best thing is to slow down until you can see what is going on.

Having said that, and I hope this doesn't sound glib, we've all got to die some time, and there are surely worse ways to go than on a big bike on holiday in Italy, doing something you love.

My sincere sympathies are will all those involved.

Accidents happen

A small boy is swinging on a rail in a supermarket. He falls off and bangs his head. Sadly, he dies as a result.

Now that is a very unfortunate occurrence, but it's the kind of thing that happens from time to time. It's called an accident. Small children do this kind of thing, and sometimes the consequences are serious. But these days, we need someone to blame for everything that happens. Some might say that the mother of the child, who was shopping only a few feet away, should have kept him under better control, and is to blame for his death. I don't think that is necessarily true. Possibly the child was acting in a dangerous way and she should have stopped him. Possibly he was just fooling around like kids do, and she turned away for a few seconds. We don't know.

But the parents are taking legal action against the supermarket. Quite how they think the supermarket is to blame I don't know. No doubt there is a no-win-no-fee lawyer somewhere who has told them that they could make a few grand out of this. Those who know me will know that I work in this field - at the receiving end. I work for a large travel and tourism company, and we have thousands of members of the public on our premises throughout the year. With depressing regularity, I receive letters from solicitors claiming that their clients have hurt themselves while on the premises and therefore are due huge amounts of compo. Even falling over a piece of gravel has been presented as the result of a huge, careless corporation toying with the health and well-being of poor, helpless victims. It's a farce.

I doubt if the action will be successful. All the supermarket has to do is to demonstrate that the railing was properly installed and not faulty at the time of the accident, and that there was no hidden danger that the parents could not have foreseen. What I find distressing is that we seem to be turning into a nation of infants. If anything goes wrong, someone else must be to blame. The rather adult concept of taking responsibility for your own actions (and your children's) seems to have vaporised.

The family and the solicitor representing them are from Liverpool, a city that seems to have raised victimhood to an art form. The solicitor has said "This is a working class neighbourhood with lots of children. We say that parents should be able to go shopping with their children in a safe environment." If a simple metal rail constitutes an unsafe environment, I would love to know how he would design a shop to be safe.

Tuesday 22 September 2009

Scotland the Brave

This business of Baroness Scotland and the housekeeper is troubling me. Specifically: how the hell is she still Attorney-General?

On the face of it, I have some sympathy for the woman. After all, she looked at the Tongan lady's documents and they seemed OK. She has been fined a whopping £5000 for failing to take a photocopy, which seems a very harsh penalty for a minor oversight. I'm on her side - the hard-working woman against the over-mighty state.

Until I remember that it was Baroness Scotland who introduced the law in question when she was a minister at the Home Office. The Government were worried about public concern over illegal immigrants and, rather than take action to stop the illegal immigration, they took the rather cowardly step of putting the onus onto employers and lorry drivers to stop it, with huge fines and threats of imprisonment for those who, even inadvertently, broke the law. And for the employers, they deliberately scotched the 'inadvertent' defence by insisting that the only defence available in law was to show that you had seen, and photocopied, the worker's documentation. (That's a new one, by the way - "guilty unless you can produce paper evidence that you are innocent", rather than "innocent unless we can prove you are guilty".)

The legislation seemed to me at the time to be unnecessarily harsh and a little vindictive to employers, but then Labour always seem to view employers as the incarnation of everything that is evil. So it is ripely ironic that it is this specific requirement that she seems to have fallen foul of, and which has brought her this fine and a humbling if insincere public apology.

But then I remember that she is the senior law officer in all the land. There is no-one higher or, to put it another way, no-one who might be expected to know, and obey, the law more than she. I would have thought that, when someone is appointed to the position of Attorney-General, pretty much the first thing they must think to themselves is: "I need to be really careful about how I behave from now on." 'T's will be crossed, and 'i's dotted, if only to maintain the unimpeachable integrity that the office demands. The Attorney-General is the person who advises Government about things like the legality of going to war. And yet she can't get something as simple as a photocopy right? On a law that she herself helped to draft? God help us.

And now we see her in the news, laughing it off as a technicality, an 'administrative mistake', something like not paying the congestion charge. Does she have any idea how contemptuous that sounds to the ordinary voter?

But I think it is more serious than just failing to take a photocopy which, I would agree, is a technicality. If we go back to the day when she inspected, as she says she did, the Tongan lady's documents. Either they were apparently in order, in which case the housekeeper must have forged them, and should expect prosecution for that. Or they were out of date, in which case the Baroness knowingly employed an illegal worker, which makes the whole thing much more serious. A third possibility (and the most likely, in my view) is that she didn't look at the documents at all, but took the lady's word for it. She's married to a solicitor, after all, which means complete respectability, doesn't it? Don't answer that. If she didn't see any documents, that is negligence of the highest order.

Even looked at in the kindest way, she is guilty of a careless handling of something that the Government of the day were trumpeting as the solution to a very serious problem. Taking a more cynical view, she has knowingly flouted a law which she herself brought to the statute book. Either way, she cannot stay in post. As Iain Dale points out, "Am I right in thinking that if a magistrate had been fined £5,000 for breaking the law, he or she would have been thrown off the bench?" The days when politicians got caught out and resigned in shame are long gone. Now, even breaking the law is just a case of getting into the media, laughing it off, and carrying on as if nothing had happened. And all the while, respect for the rule of law continues to vanish down the toilet.

I loved her final comment:

She said she was confident that "having seen the example made of me there won't be any woman in the country who won't be now reaching for that passport and making sure she's got the copy".

Well, only those women who can employ servants, Baroness.

Monday 21 September 2009

Strange notices

Seen recently, some notices that I though were strange. In Wickes' DIY store:

For Your Safety and Security, Surveillance Cameras Operate in This Store


For Your Safety and Security, These Products Are Tagged.

In what way, I wondered, does the fact that there is a camera watching my every move contribute to my safety? Is Wickes full of homicidal customers who are only restrained from attacking random strangers by the presence of video recording? How does a tag on a product mean I am more secure? By ensuring that I don't accidentally leave with something under my coat, and thereby inadvertently get a criminal record?

Then I realised that the notices are wrong, albeit by only one letter - for Your, read Our. I don't object to the surveillance or the tagging of products - Wickes have to make a profit somehow, and it's honest customers like me who pay higher prices if there is thieving - but I do object to their anti-theft measures being dressed up as concern for my welfare. Just be honest, guys:

Notice to Customers: We have video surveillance and electronic tagging to stop you nicking our stuff.

On another outing, I saw this on a packet of Walkers Sensations Crisps:

Made With Real Ingredients.

Priceless. I mean, how can it not be?

Sunday 20 September 2009

Last of the Summer?

Today was dry, sunny and fairly warm, with a lovely blue sky and fluffy white clouds, more like early Spring than late September. Anna and I had a walk on the beach this morning - the first time we had done this since her poor health started back in February. We were only out of the car for half an hour, but we had a walk on the sands and then bought some fish and chips and ate them sitting on the rocks, overlooking the sea.

After we got home, Anna needed a rest, and I looked outside and realised that this was probably going to be the last decent Sunday this year - the forecast says the weather is due to break soon. So I jumped on the trailbike and went for a run. I went right round the Preseli hills, and deliberately chose the smallest, most remote roads I could find. I needed a contrast after the miles of motorway I covered last week. Today, 44 miles, out of habit :)

The Yam is a great little bike for this type of road, and we had a whale of a time. It is amazing how much fun motorcycling can be when you take it easy and just take in the scenery. After an hour, I pulled in at a local beauty spot for a leg-stretch. And I needed it. The Yam's seat is narrow and hard in comparison with the Pan's, and I was starting to get severe arse-ache. At one point a month ago, I was debating with myself whether to go to Denmark on the Yam or the Honda. I think, in retrospect, the Honda was the wise choice. My arse agrees.

Back to work tomorrow, not to work, but to have a meeting with my boss. When I accepted a reduction in hours (and pay) in June, I requested a review meeting after three months. This is now three weeks overdue, and my boss has finally scheduled it for tomorrow. I'm not sure how I am going to approach this. I have enjoyed the extra two days a week off, and it has allowed me to shop and keep up with domestic things while Anna has been on the bench. But the reduction in pay has been disastrous for my finances, and I need to get back to full-time earnings as soon as possible. Work proper starts on Tuesday.

When I was a teacher, I always used to get 'Sunday night blues'. For the first time since I found an alternative career, tonight I feel the same: a mixture of gloom, dread and resignation.

Onwards and upwards, then ...

Saturday 19 September 2009

Denmark Trip Day Eight

D'n Toerstop to home, 550 miles

I had prepared everything the night before, so I was ready to leave by 7 am. I had told Hansel and Gretel of my plan to leave as early as possible, and they warned me "Do not any noise make, we will sleeping are." As a common courtesy, I would have been as quiet as possible in any case, but I wondered now if revving the nuts off the bike and showering their tent in grass and mud might not have been a bad idea. I decided to be nice. Sliding and dropping the Pan on wet grass, and having to ask them to help me get it back up again, would not have helped my composure one little bit.

The journey towards Calais and the Tunnel was pretty uneventful, except for Antwerp. I was approaching Antwerp on the E34, and was about ten miles from the city ring road, when traffic started to slow and then stopped. As I said before, the Belgians are brilliant about allowing bikes to filter through traffic, and many of them moved to one side to allow me through. But I could still only move at about 10 mph, at which speed the Pan is a bit of a handful. It's heavy (about 350 kg loaded) and it's wide, and the last thing I wanted to do was to have to exchange names and addresses with an angry Belgian for scraping his nice Picasso with my footrest. So I filtered where there was a good space to do so, hung back when there wasn't, and moved aside to let the Belgian bikers have free rein when they came up behind.

This went on for what seemed like hours. It was made worse by the road construction. The road was made of concrete slabs, and in between the lanes there were channels, perhaps an inch wide, which made the front wheel tramline like hell and the bike wobble and shake, because that's exactly where I had to ride. In places, there was also a vertical difference between the slabs too, with one side half an inch higher than the other. Once or twice I thought it was going over, only to rescue it a moment later with a bit of trials-style Body English.

The Pan has a fairly high idle speed, and at 5 mph it needs the clutch pulling in to stop it romping ahead. This isn't a problem in normal traffic, but after half an hour my left forearm was pumping up like a weightlifter's and I was getting pretty uncomfortable. Eventually, I decided to be really baaaad and I moved onto the hard shoulder and cruised slowly up that, past the traffic and the hard stares of the drivers. A few others were doing the same, but they were generally young men in scruffy old cars. Still, needs must. I made it to a service area and decided to take a break and see how things worked out. As I had left early, I knew I had plenty of time.

I parked the bike and started chatting to a man who had also parked his car and was standing next to it, having a cigarette. (Is smoking in your own car illegal now? I saw lots of this in Germany too.) He told me that there had been a big accident on the Antwerp ring road, and the traffic in all directions was backed up for miles. He had been waiting in the queue for over two hours, and was resigned to being very late indeed for work.

I had a munch of trail mix and a drink of water, and then pressed on. Fortunately, the jam only lasted for another few hundred metres, and then things started flowing again.

I made the Eurotunnel check-in at about 11.40, in time to catch the 11.50 train (my booking was for 14.20, but they are helpfully flexible). Despite the warnings against flash photography on the train ("it interferes with our fire safety systems") I took a final shot of the Pan as we were setting off.

The only other bike on the crossing was a newish Yamaha FJR1300, ridden by a couple who had just done a short visit to Verdun. They were as different from the couple on the outward crossing as could be - friendly, chatty and thoroughly nice. He was in his late 60s and looked retired; she was around 50 and charming. They used to be die-hard BMW owners, but recent experiences with reliability issues (you stop at the péage to pay your toll on a 2-month-old bike, and the bike won't start again - in fact, it takes repatriation on a flatbed and a week in a main dealer's workshop before it could be persuaded to come out to play again) have made them fans of Japanese reliability. They knew D'n Toerstop well, and had stayed there many times. Small world - by which I mean to say that this bike-touring business is a world, and it is quite small, and the same people are bound to crop up from time to time.

When I got onto the M20, my nose really was turned towards home, and I let rip. I must have kept it around 110 all the way to the M25, until I realised that the last time I filled up was in Holland, and that the numbers on the fuel display were ticking down again. Also, it had started to rain.

The Pan's weather protection is awesomely good. Despite riding in drizzle and showers occasionally on the trip, I had never needed waterproofs. The fairing kept my body, legs and arms dry, and the only things to catch the rain were the tips of my boots (already waterproof) and my hands, which got damp eventually. But this rain was getting harder by the minute, and soon I was staring to feel water creeping where water shouldn't, and my jeans and jacket getting damper and damper. When I stopped at Clacket Lane sevices for fuel, I decided to tog up, and I was glad I did. The rain turned into a steady downpour, and for the next 50 miles, all I could see were the roofs of the cars around me; the rest was hidden by spray.

In these conditions, warning bells start ringing, and I stayed in the slow lane, with my speed at around 40. The Pan ploughed on, never missing a beat, and being on such a big and stable bike gave me a lot of confidence. There was no drama with the weather - it was just a minor inconvenience. By Swindon, the rain had eased, and I stopped at another service area to take off the waterproofs and allow my jeans to dry out naturally in the wind.

I could feel myself almost home by now, and I didn't want anything to spoil the trip at the last fence, so stuck to an almost-legal 80-85 and pottered my way towards Wales. I filled the bike up a couple of miles from home, then pottered the last stretch and drove onto my drive at about 6 pm. I was tired, but not stupidly so, and ready for a proper sleep in a proper bed.

It had been a great trip, with a lot of 'firsts' ticked off - first holiday alone, first holiday on a bike, first time I'd ridden a bike abroad. Worth it? You bet - I am already planning the next one.

Well, that's the story of the trip. I still have a lot of thoughts, which I will no doubt put down here as they occur to me, but they will be general things. Eight days on a bike allows you a lot of thinking time.

If reading this has made you want to do something similar, be my guest. It's far easier than you think. And we all need a new challenge now and then.

Denmark Trip Day Seven

Oosterbeek and the War Cemeteries, 111 miles

I slept well, and woke up around 8 am. By the time I had dressed and stumbled about aimlessly for a while, Keith and Ken were packing and ready to go. I had a long chat with Keith about his bike. It was a Harley Davidson Fat Boy:

I have long held a prejudice against Harleys. Too much of the 'All-American' image that doesn't sit well on a tubby 40-year-old from Chipping Sodbury; too slow, bad brakes, no ground clearance. A bike that is all about image and sound (Harley have even tried to patent the famous 'potato-potato' sound of the V-twin), and chrome and gen-yoo-ine Screamin' Eagle accessories, and as far removed from my idea of biking as it is possible to be. This prejudice was compounded by a relative of Anna's, a country solicitor who owns a Harley, complete with tasselled bars and saddlebags, and wears all the fringed leathers to match. He seems as far from baaaad as it is possible to be, and is therefore at the centre of Harley's demographic. However, Keith did a partial conversion job on me.

He worked for a large motorcycle dealership in Stoke, and got this bike when it was brought in as a trade-in for something else, with only a thousand or so miles on the clock (owner decided on a yacht instead?). He had had sports bikes by the bucketload, and finally got fed up of the chase for more speed, faster times and points on his licence. He had bought a smaller Harley as an experiment, liked it, and then spent serious money on the Fat Boy. He said it made riding a wholly different experience - you don't go very fast, but you enjoy the journey, and the vibe is unlike anything else: no pressure, no racing, just you and your Hawg and the road.

Having spent three out of the last six days riding pretty quickly, looking for chances to get ahead, constantly watching the mirrors for cars with funny lights, ducking the wind, balancing the need to make progress and the need to get there in one piece, I saw what he meant. The Pan is a wonderful and very capable (and safe) bike, but I have to confess that more than once I wished that I had a bit more time, and I was on my trailbike pottering along minor roads at 55, rather than blasting up the autobahn at nearly twice that. I would have enjoyed the journey more, although it would have taken probably a week longer for the whole thing. And the journey's the thing, isn't it? The destination is only half the story. The Pan is huge and flexible, and will let you potter along at 50 if you wish, without complaining - but when you know that a simple twist of the right wrist will have you flying towards the horizon at imprisonable speeds, in comfort and safety, it's hard to potter. We're always wanting to get to the next horizon, but a fast bike perhaps makes that just too accessible. A slower bike doesn't tempt you just to hammer on - you can sit back and enjoy the scenery too. Maybe there's a Harley somewhere in my future. Or maybe the next trip will be on the trusty Yamaha. Who knows?

I had decided (more or less as soon as I realised how comfy those foam mattresses were) that I was going to stay another night at D'n Toerstop and use the extra day to visit the war cemeteries near Arnhem.

Anna's cousin's father was 28 when he was killed in Operation Market Garden, where the Allied forces tried to capture and hold the bridge over the Rhine at Arnhem. The story goes that he survived the parachute drop OK, but was killed in hand-to-hand fighting in the town itself when the 'weakened and demoralised' German forces defending the area turned out to be anything but. He is buried at the military cemetery at Oosterbeek, and when Anna and I had a holiday there a few years ago, we made the visit. Since I was in the area, and with a day to spare, I thought it would be good to see it all again.

I took the motorway for the 50 miles or so to Oosterbeek and found the cemetery eventually (it's up a side road and not massively well signposted). I looked up the record and located the grave, and stood for a while, contemplating not only his name, but the stones around inscribed with only "A Soldier Of The War". There are no words to describe how I feel when I visit places like this - only that everyone should go there at some point, and stop, and forget about their Playstations and televisions and motorbikes and jobs and mortgages, and just think about what is around them. It's humbling.

What makes it more poignant is the care with which the graves - thousands of them - are tended by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Local people, mainly older, are there every day, tidying and tickling and occasionally repairing and restoring. Once a year, local children visit and lay flowers. Still.

I am going to quote in full the text from a memorial stone there, which speaks of the bonds between people who have shared such sacrifices:


50 years ago British and Polish Airborne soldiers fought here against overwhelming odds to open the way into Germany and bring the war to an early end. Instead we brought death and destruction for which you have never blamed us.

This stone marks our admiration for your great courage, remembering especially the women who tended our wounded. In the long winter that followed your families risked death by hiding Allied soldiers and airmen, while members of the Resistance helped many to safety.

You took us into your homes as fugitives and friends,
We took you into our hearts.
This strong bond will continue
Long after we are all gone.

1944 — September — 1994

At this point, I didn't see much point in hanging about, so I decided to head back to the campsite and get things ready for my final day of the trip. I was pig-sick of motorways by this time, so I asked Jane nicely to take me back by a scenic route. She obliged, in fine style. We went into Germany and through part of the Reichswald Forest, and then back into Holland through small villages and tiny farmsteads. All very well - but I was getting very low on fuel. I had calculated that I could fill up close to the campsite, which would give me a full tank to take me all the way back to the UK before I needed to fill up again. Amazingly, and uniquely in my experience, British fuel prices were actually lower than in France, and I didn't need to spend a lot of extra Euros filling the pockets of M Sarkozy and his gang. But the scenic meander back to Melderslo was taking longer than I thought. I was getting closer to the campsite, and the fuel display on the bike was reading 'miles to empty' - first 50, then 30, then 20 ...

And I couldn't remember if there was a filling station in Melderslo. If I got back there and there wasn't, I was stuffed, as I wouldn't have the fuel to get out again and find a petrol station. And then I remembered Jane. She's a clever girl. You can ask her to find the nearest petrol station to your current location and then take you there. So I pulled over and asked her the question. Luckily, there was one a few miles away, so I headed there and pulled onto the forecourt, sucking fumes. I was thus the helpless candidate for The Most Expensive Petrol Anywhere In Europe, at €1.41 a litre - that worked out at £1.23, and I can tell you that the Pan's tank is not in any way small. The fuel and a sandwich cost me nearly forty quid. But at least I got some.

I got back to the campsite ready for a sit down, a beer and perhaps a snooze. But someone had other ideas. As I pulled the plastic chair out onto my 'verandah', I heard a noise like a cricket chirping. But it was too loud and too regular to be a cricket - it had to be man-made. I thought it might be a burglar alarm for one of the buildings on the far side of the road, but then I realised it was closer to home than that. About 20m away from my cabin was a tiny tent with a chopper parked alongside. The noise was coming from the chop. I went to investigate, and found that the culprit was a 120 decibel alarm attached to the bike. Something had obviously set it off in the afternoon, and it had decided to carry on until its battery ran out.

It was the kind of noise you couldn't ignore, so I had a closer look. It was a cheap thing, just a steel cable wrapped through the wheels, with a black box (the source of the racket) laid on the ground under the bike. I turned it over, and there was a small aperture in the bottom which was where the noise was coming from. My first thought was to urinate into it, but then I didn't know what voltage it ran on, and that might be a bit risky, on a personal level. I had a bottle of water with me, and that would have done just as well, but if I stopped it sounding it might be permanent, and I didn't want to deprive a fellow biker of his only security on what might be a long trip. So I found some soft paper in a litter bin and stuffed it into the opening. It worked, in that it cut the noise to about half of its previous level. I went back to the cabin and got on with my pottering, and after about half an hour decided to go for a shower.

When I came back out, it was raining hard and the noise had stopped. I walked over to the bike and took out my paper and kicked the unit back under the bike. Silence is golden, and sometimes nature steps in to help. I was walking around the site taking some photographs later on when the bike's owner came back.

Check out the complete wartime BMW rotting away in the entrance. There's a project for someone. That's not the chop's owner, by the way. He was twice as wide.

I met many people in the few days I was away, but this guy and his friend were the weirdest I came across. The bike's owner (we'll call him Hansel) was in his early 20s, short, and must have weighed at least 25 stone. He had a long tuft of beard on the point of his chin, and eyes that pointed in different directions. He had a kind of menace about him - not the menace of a streetfighter or a hard man, but that of a soft, nasty boy who tortures cats. His 'friend' (we'll call him Gretel, then) was about 30, silent, tall and wiry, with tattoos on almost every available square inch of skin.

Hansel started the conversation, asking me where I had been, and telling me that they had been 'shopping'. He spoke in poor English, heavily accented (the barman later told me he spoke to them in Schweitzerdeutsch, and they could hardly understand him either). Everything was 'verry fun'. I told him about the alarm (omitting my paper-stuffing exploits) and expressed the opinion that the rain had stopped it. "Nein, but I put it unter the bike, it cannot have rained on been." He went and checked it and came back. "Ah, it now working is again. This is good. I would not like the old lady to lose, she means much to me."

I asked him about the bike (always a good wheeze for defusing awkward conversations). "She is an old 1978 Shovelhead, she has been with me long time, great old lady." A few clouds of doubt had been gathering in my mind. If you look at the picture of the bike above, you will see that it is designed for style rather than practicality, to say the least, and when I realised that here were two biggish guys, one tent, one bike - travelling together, must be - I wondered how the hell they managed to get a tent and kit for two people on something that had no carrying capacity whatsoever. I struggled to get my stuff on the Pan, and there's only one of me, and the Pan was designed for this kind of thing. Then all was revealed.

"The old lady, she is not so good these days. It is over 700 km from Switzerland, and I think maybe she won't make it. So we come in car with trailer." Let me get this right: you collect your friend, load the bike onto a trailer, drive to a bikers-only campsite, park the car round the corner, and ride in like you had just crossed half a continent? "Yes that is so."

I know a little about biker culture, and I am pretty sure that if this were generally known, and the site was full of genuine bikers, then if the owners hadn't thrown them off, the other residents would have taken pleasure in doing so. Possibly violently. Perhaps that was why they were travelling round in early September, when the sites were empty and the chances of detection were slim.

Hansel, Gretel and I were the only residents that evening, so we were forced to eat together. They sat at one end of the bar, talking in their strange gutteral way, and I sat as far away as possible, talking to the barmaid and trying to understand the music system (a screen behind the bar had a 'virtual deck' with sliders and knobs and all the upcoming tracks listed; fascinating). The spare ribs - yes, they were good enough to have twice - were mountainous, perhaps as an end-of-season clearout, and I dined well. When the beers started flowing, I made an excuse, gave an elaborate yawn, and retired to my cabin. It was 8 pm. I was asleep by 8.15, and slept for ten hours solid.

Denmark Trip Day Six

Yamaha Club to D'n Toerstop, 515 miles

I was chatting with Poul about my plans for the return journey. I told him about the Belgian experience, and how I had originally planned to stay there on the way back, but now the hounds of Hell could not persuade me to go within ten miles of the place. He suggested a bikers-only campsite in Netherlands called D'n Toerstop - good welcome, good food, and so on. I found it in the satnav (brilliant!) and it looked a reasonable point to break the journey home. I was hoping for somewhere a little closer to Calais to make the last day a bit easier, but this seemed too good to pass up. That was one of my better decisions.

I was up good and early, and ready to go by 9 am. A final cup of coffee and hugs all round, and I left the camp and headed up the road. No matter how good the people, and how pleasant the situation, it is always a good feeling to be on the road again. The mind focuses forward, and the day seems full of possibilities. But Poul and Alice could not have been kinder or more hospitable, and I owe them some serious British hospitality when they come to visit us next year. I was sorry to leave them. If you read this, guys - many, many thanks for everything.

There is a saying (I think it might be from my native Yorkshire, but that may be me over-romanticising again) that says "A horse pulls better homeward." I have always found that the return journey is always easier, and seems quicker, than the outward. The bike fairly flew down the E45 towards Germany, and in no time at all I was pulling into the town of Jelling, where I hoped to find my stones (as it were). They were easy enough to find, and in the planning I had hoped to spend a couple of hours here, looking at the stones and reading up on the history. As it was, I had my head turned to home and after taking a few photographs (they are standing outside in a churchyard), I remounted and headed South again.

The Runestone of Gorm (left) and the stone of Harald Bluetooth (right). Both from the 10th Century, and marking the time when Denmark was leaving its pagan past and embracing Christianity. Harald Bluetooth is said to have united the Danish tribes as a nation for the first time, and the communications protocol is named after him, implying that Bluetooth unites communications into a universal standard. The symbol for Bluetooth is a bind-rune incorporating the runes for H and B.

Betcha didn't know that.

I got back on the road and quickly left Denmark and entered Germany. The autobahn through Northern Germany was as dull as it had been a few days before, and the constant roadworks were just as frustrating. However, there were no real delays, and I arrived at the Dutch campsite at around 6 pm. Poul had told me that there were cabins, similar to those on the MC Touring Club site, at D'n Toerstop, and I rather hoped I could grab one, as I had had to pack the tent away wet, and the thought of grappling with acres of damp nylon again was a bit dispiriting. I wandered into the bar (which doubles as a reception desk) and asked if there were places - a slightly redundant question in mid-September, but it was a starting-point. Of course there were places, and yes, a cabin was free. A place for a tent would be €10, and a cabin €19.50, so a deal was done, and I though it very reasonable.

The guy behind the bar was a bit of a joker. "You are English, yes? I have some company for you for tonight - two guys from Stoke-on-Trent!" Before I could back out of the agreement and head back for Belgium, two figures entered the bar with unmistakeable Potteries accents (like Brum, but easier to understand). I said hi, and within five minutes we were sitting round a table, on our second beers, and swapping stories as if we had known each other for years. Keith was about 40, shaved head and goatee, cheerful and friendly. Ken was a good bit older, with a Wild-West moustache and a dry cynicism to match Keith's bonhomie. We got on well, ploughed our way through a plate of excellent spare ribs, and went back to our cabins - it turned out that they were my next-door neighbours.

The bar at D'n Toerstop is remarkable. All done out in dark wood, with posters for bands and forthcoming events, it has bike memorabilia everywhere. There is a mini-moto on a shelf at the back, and a full-size bike (not sure what) on a beam overhead. The following day, I spent a good half hour just looking round the bar.

The cabins were little more than garden sheds with attitude - 10ft by 10ft, with two sets of bunks in each and a set of plastic garden furniture. Nothing else. However, after a week in a tent, it seemed like the Ritz, and I slept like a log on a comfortable foam mattress at least - oh - three inches thick. Bliss.

Denmark Trip Day Five

Last day at MC Touring Camp and the Yamaha Treff, 44 miles

I should spell that 'træf', as it was a Danish one. The usual word is 'treff', from the German for 'meeting', but the Danes spell it their own way, although it is pronounced the same. It's what we would call in English a rally - a meeting of like-minded people in a field somewhere, with food, drink, perhaps a band or two and a good time. I've been to plenty of meetings of Land Rover enthusiasts in the UK which I now realise were 'treffs' of a kind, but this was the first one for me on two wheels and out of the UK.

We spent a lazy morning on the campsite and I packed up all my gear and loaded the bike. An unexpected treat was the offer to 'have a go' on Alice's sidecar outfit. In all the years I have been a motorcyclist, I had never once ridden a 'chariot', as we used to call them. I had only been a passenger in one once, when I was given a spin round the block by someone's older brother with (I think) an old BSA with a Watsonian sidecar. The chair was sagging on its frame and touched the ground on occasions, but it was fun. So I approached Alice's Beemer with a degree of caution. It is set up properly for sidecar use, with leading-link forks, car-type tyres and the brakes of the sidecar linked to the bike's main braking system. I took two cautious laps of the campsite first, and then set off up the road.

It was quite an experience. The steering was ludicrously quick, like a go-kart, and the outfit had plenty of oomph. Keeping it in a straight line was a bit of a challenge, but the most difficult part was allowing for the extra width on the right-hand side. The riding position, controls and everything else told the brain 'BIKE', but the approach needed to every obstacle was 'CAR'. You would approach (say) a right-hand bend, and all your instincts were telling you to move to the left, shift bodyweight and lean it round. Instead, you had to keep to the middle of the lane, and steer it round on the bars, making sure that the chair wheel didn't go off the road and into the rough, which would have made the handling even more challenging. And that is before you start to consider cornering speeds which, on right-handers (left in the UK), need to be low enough to avoid the chair becoming airborne. I got back after a five-mile spin feeling as if I had done a hundred and five. It was a very interesting experience, and I'm glad I was given the opportunity, but I doubt if a combination will be high on my wish-list this Christmas. Never say never, though - if Anna's back doesn't improve and she still wants to be involved, then it may be a necessity for future years. Unless we consider a trike, of course :)))

I had a sit in the chair for a few minutes, and I have to confess it was very comfy. The luggage capacity compared to a solo is awesome. But Poul's tales of cruising down to Spain in it at 130 km/hr sound a little more heroic than I can manage.

We set off after lunch and did a gentle few miles to the Yamaha Club site. This was situated up a short lane off the main road, and was amazingly well-appointed. There was a hardstanding area (full of bikes in normal times, I would imagine) in front of a clubhouse, and a temporary marquee, with a field adjacent for the camping.

There were several bikes and outfits there already,

and Alice had already arrived and put their tent up. Riding what she called the 'sidebike' over the field was no problem, but the ground was rough and the grass long, and Poul decided, on the sensible grounds of seat height and leg-length, to leave the RF on the lane. Sensible chap.

It says Yamaha Club Århus, and the sign on the main road just read 'YCÅ' - nice and discreet.

Well-organised - a place for everything

And a nice bar. These guys have their priorities right.

I took one look at the field, another look at all the gear I would have to carry, and decided to give it a go. It was a little nerve-wracking, but I got there in the end and set up camp next to them. (I bought a sidestand puck, a plastic disc about 3" across, before I left home. It was £2.99 from Halfords, which I thought was a bit steep, but it was worth its weight in gold on grass and loose surfaces. Imagine stopping on a bit of grass, kicking down the sidestand, and watching the fully-loaded bike take a graceful lie-down as the stand penetrates the soil. That one is staying in the fairing pocket.)

We spent the afternoon sitting in the field at a table, knocking back a few beers and chatting to the folks as they arrived. The highlight for me was the arrival of a tall chap on a Suzuki Hayabusa (for those wot don't know, this is a large and very fast sports bike, capable of 186 mph, and not a likely touring choice). The bike, it must be admitted, was immaculate, just as it had come out of the showroom. The sequence of events for its rider was as follows:
  • Park bike on sidestand
  • Get out cleaning rag
  • Go over the whole bike, wiping away tiny bits of grime from the wheels, exhausts and fairing (the bike was cleaner than mine ever are before he even started)
  • Put away cleaning rag
  • Take off biking gear
  • Put on Suzuki branded t-shirt (fresh out of the cellophane), Suzuki baseball cap, jeans and leather waistcoat
  • Have beer
  • Erect tent.
It seemed just a little obsessive and posed, but each to his own, I suppose.

There were some interesting bikes around by now, from racer-replicas to vintage models. I grabbed a shot of this Nimbus combination, which was beautifully restored and clearly in regular use:

The Danes seem to treat the Nimbus in the same we we think about Norton Commandos and Triumph Bonnevilles - wonderful classics, which fill us with nationalistic pride. The Nimbus was a little - er - different from those, however, with a 750cc in-line four-cylinder engine (set longitudinally, which would have meant serious cooling problems for No. 4, I would have thought) and a frame made of flat bars rather than tubing. The owner of the bike in the picture fired it up at one point, and everyone present fell silent to appreciate the sound. All together ... Ahhhhhhhhhh! It sounded just like an old motorbike to me, but perhaps I don't have the background. Poul insisted that his would be as good as this, or better. It will be worth a trip to see it if he succeeds.

Apparently, attendance at the treff was less than the organisers had anticipated, and therefore there was to be no band, just a disco. When we started to feel hungry, we wandered down to the clubhouse and got something to eat. Entry to the treff was completely free, which was very good, and the food was very reasonable. You bought the basics (in my case, a frankfurter in a roll - and later another exactly the same) in the bar and then filled your plate from the tables outside, where there was everything from pasta salads to the ubiquitous salamis and cheeses.

I had a great time talking to people and eating the food, with a regular supply of Tuborg or Carlsberg (nothing whatsoever like the tap water that goes under those names in the UK) to get the mood right. Later on, it got chilly, and we all repaired to the marquee, where there was a selection of the usual 'rock classics' on a CD player, but played at a volume that allowed conversation. After a while (probably about 10 pm) I felt tired and decided to hit the sack. I went back to the field, which was in total darkness (a headtorch is another thing I will always bring with me in future - mine was more use than the pannier-full of camping kit that never saw the light of day) and got into the sleeping bag again. This time, I seemed to have the inflation pressure of the air mattress just right (not saggily limp, nor bouncily firm) and I drifted to sleep quickly. Usually I find it hard to get to sleep before a big journey - and tomorrow's was going to be big - but I had no difficulty that night. All credit to the manners of the biking fraternity: I didn't hear a single person return to their tent. I had a great night's sleep.

That was typical of the whole trip. I was expecting some noisy nights and irksome behaviour from a few, but in general lights were out (or at least subdued) and silence was kept after 11 pm. I bet Saga Holidays have rowdier nights than this lot.

Friday 18 September 2009

Denmark Trip Day Four

Århus and Grauballe Man, 106 miles

I had told Poul that I was interested in the history of Denmark, especially the Vikings and the runestones that were engraved around that period. I had a couple of reasons for this. One was that I studied English runes as part of my MA many years ago, and all the text books referred to the magnificent Danish runestones, which were held to be rather superior to the scarce and scrappy English variety, so I had always had a wish to see the 'real thing'. Also, there is a rumour in the family that we originally came from somewhere around the area (Denmark or Northern Germany), and the idea of meeting my possible ancestors was intriguing. But mainly, I just find the so-called Dark Ages a fascinating period of history.

I don't think Poul shared my interest, but was polite enough to promise that he would take me to a museum in Århus where I could get my prehistoric fix. The most important runestones are located at Jelling, about 80 miles south of Århus, and I had already decided to call in there on my way back.

The day started (after another substantial and lazy breakfast) with a quick ride around the villages nearby and a visit to the farm of a friend of Poul's, who kept shire horses. The friends were not around, but this didn't stop Poul showing me the farm and the outbuildings. Earlier this year, I built a log store in our back garden, ready for firing our woodburner through the winter. I estimate that I have room for about 12 cubic metres of cut wood. These people had a wood store in one of their outbuildings. They must have had several tons of wood, all cut to stove length, neatly stacked in wooden boxes and ready for the winter. It made my 12 cube look like the contents of a matchbox, and I was very envious. Poul pointed out a weathercock he had made for them: beautiful.

Daddy, why is the horse called 'Svøn'?

We set off again and went through Århus, ending up at the museum, which was situated in nearby village called Moesgård (pronounced, to my surprise, something like Mooshkor). There was the expected display of Denmark through the millennia, but the main event was Grauballe Man.

In 1952, a man was digging for peat near the village of Grauballe when he discovered a man's body. The body had been remarkably well preserved by the peat, and was dated to about 300BC. The preservation was so good that his hair and nails were intact, and his hands were in such good condition that his fingerprints could be taken. His throat had been slit from ear to ear, and it seems he was the unfortunate victim of a sacrifice. I had read about Grauballe Man, along with other 'bog bodies', many years ago, and when I leaned that the actual man was in the museum I was very keen to see him.

He was displayed in a simple glass case in a bare room with subdued lighting - no notices, no worksheets, no animatronics, no 'interpretive' nonsense, just the body of a man from over 2000 years ago, eerily still and quiet, but with an enormous presence. A very moving experience.

We finally emerged in to the sunlight and had a bit of lunch and an ice-cream. Then Poul took us on a tour of Århus. We stopped at a workshop where he used to work, where one of his stainless creations is still in the front garden.

He then took me to his apartment in the city centre. His living quarters are on the second floor, but the real treasure was his basement rooms where he does his fabrication. There was the dismantled Nimbus, and also a lathe, welding equipment, and all the myriad nonsense that blokes collect in their sheds - paint, bicycle wheels, old engines, 'stuff that will come in useful'.

On the way back to the campsite, Poul's riding style changed radically. The roads opened up, and our speeds increased somewhat. We started to carve through the traffic like bikes should, and eventually we came to a set of traffic lights, with an open dual carriageway ahead of us. We pulled up side by side, gave each other a grin, and the trick was on. I pulled away pretty smartly, but Poul nailed it big time and howled past me. I was a bit taken aback: I'm not used to being out-accelerated on the Honda, and I always thought the RF900 was a bit of a plodder. I was wrong - it went like a scalded cat. He must have had a good 20 bhp more than I did, and he wasn't afraid to use it. I set off in pursuit, and soon the road became almost a motorway. I kept him in sight (without all the gear, and even without its built-in panniers, the Honda goes pretty well) and we enjoyed an empty road, dry and with the remains of the day's sunshine, doing well over the ton for mile after mile. After all the self-restraint and the good manners and the clean image of earlier in the day, it was quite a relief to be baaaad for a short while.

When we got back to the campsite, it had begun to fill up for the weekend, and there were people and bikes everywhere. I was particularly taken with a yellow GoldWing which had parked near my tent - not so much out of a desire to own it, but because the concept was so outrageous.

I got chatting to the owner, and he insisted on sitting me on the pillion to show me how confortable it was. I could have slept there, quite happily. I have chairs in my own house that are less relaxing.

(One photo opportunity I didn't get, and bitterly regret missing, came on the first morning. A middle aged guy in the tent next to me packed up his tent about 7 am, strapped it on his Harley, put on his leather jacket and chaps, piss-pot helmet and shades, then lit his pipe and chugged off into the morning mist. Marvellous.)

More beer, food and Gajol in the evening. Poul and Alice were incredibly generous to me, and wouldn't even let me pay my share of the shopping bills. I insisted on paying for things when we went out - museum entry, meals out and so on - but it was very one-sided. We are hoping that they will pay us a return visit next year, along with some other Danish friends, but they have set the hospitality bar very high.

This was to be my last night at the camp. The following day, we were leaving and going to a 'treff' (somewhere between a rally and a tribal gathering) at the Yamaha Club of Århus, where there would be a party on the Saturday night. We were to camp there, and I would leave for home on the Sunday morning.

Denmark Trip Day Three

The MC Touring Camp and a ride around the lanes, 34 miles

I ought to start by explaining how this trip came about, and what the MC Touring Camp is. The opportunity for a week away came as we decided that our big France trip this summer wasn't going to happen because of Anna's run of bad luck on the health front this year (posts, passim). It took a lot of thought before I decided where to go (here, here and here), but eventually settled on Denmark.

Anna knows a Danish guy called Poul through an internet game she plays. She told him about my week off, and he suggested that I came to see him, and even offered to show me round the place. I love travel and visiting places I haven't been before, and the offer of a few days in a new country with a clued-up local seemed too good to pass up. Poul is a member of the largest bike club in Denmark, the MC Touring Club. It has about 30,000 members and owns a campsite. Poul is a volunteer helper at the site (in addition to working in Århus), so he has a permanent pitch there with a large tent and a very comfy set-up.

He is a fabricator in stainless steel by trade, and some of his work was wonderful to see. Various bits for the bikes, and little gizmos to make living in the tent a bit easier - all beautifully welded in stainless and polished to a mirror finish. I was very envious of his talents. His 'summer bike' is a Suzuki RF900:

and he also has a 'winter bike' (with a sidecar) for those snowy Danish mornings:

and his wife Alice also has a chariot of her own, a BMW K1100 with a sidecar:

Poul also has a Danish Nimbus from the 50s in bits in the basement of his apartment in Århus, awaiting restoration. As you can see, a serious biking team.

On my first morning in the camp, I was treated to a substantial Danish breakfast, consisting of lots of strong coffee, bread rolls, salami and a powerful cheese. This suited me fine, and I was content to sit for a long time just getting my head together and shooting the breeze with Poul and Alice. A cigarette would have been perfect - the only time in the three years since I gave up that I have wanted to smoke. I didn't give in, but it was a close thing.

In the afternoon, we went for a short ride around the lanes and ended up in a place called Ebeltoft, a very pretty seaside village with a harbour and an 'old' village centre. There was an old frigate in dry dock there and on display, the Jylland - rather similar to the Victory in Portsmouth.

Poul and I had a good time clambering all over her and I was particularly interested in the immense oak store they had for ongoing repairs: just some huge trees, lying on the dockside gently seasoning over the years.

I can't begin to guess how much that oak was worth. It made my store of oak planks in the workshop look pretty pathetic.

We rode into the town centre and stopped for a beer in a small bar, where there were tables outside in the sun. In Denmark, parking for bikes is allowed pretty much anywhere, as long as you don't cause an obstruction, so bikes get parked on pavements and in odd corners, all for free, of course. Not a parking meter or traffic warden in sight.

What surprised me most was the way that we rode. I had rather expected a bit of boy-racer stuff - foreign biker needs to be shown how the Danes really ride, kind of thing. But Poul was Mr Law-Abiding himself, keeping to speed limits religiously, rarely overtaking, and generally behaving suspiciously well. It was a very relaxing day, and an ideal way to get into the Danish way of things as far as road behaviour was concerned. I was to see the other side of things later.

In was treated to a good meal by Alice when we returned, and the evening was spent with more beer and a tasting of the curious Danish drink Gajol. This is a vodka-based liqueur-type drink, flavoured with liquorice and menthol. I think it's a Marmite thing - you'll love it or hate it - but fortunately I like liquorice, so I was a keen student. It comes in four 'colours', each with subtly different flavours, and Alice had been shopping and got a bottle of each (that must have cost a bit!) for me to sample. (The colours, by the way, refer only to the labels on the bottles. The liquid is always the same brown, a bit like thin gravy.) Poul had already sent me a sample of the Blue Gajol, which I had liked. Now I was able to try the Yellow, Green and Red. Some were more spicy, some more salty, but they were all very pleasant to sip as we sat and watched the sun go down.

My tent seemed very small after the comfort of Poul's 'palace', but I crept in and settled down for the night. In September in Denmark, the days are pleasantly warm, but the nights are pretty cold - I must remember to bring a better sleeping bag next time.

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