It’s been another injury-hit season. On top of the usual back pain, lethargy, work commitments and other ailments that plague men in early middle age, I fractured my collarbone while participating in a rainy sportive in February – proof that proper cycling is an enemy of the biscuit tour.
Still, it’s not like I’ve been captured by Barbary corsairs, so three months after surgery Dawes and I pull the ice axes from our legs and stagger on. Our first tour since last summer is a clear-up of central London (at least until the next album). This is very much one for the purists, comprising four obscure destinations that we overlooked on our two previous jaunts round the capital.
Starting at Paddington, we bowl through Marylebone to Euston Station (which, we’re told, is mentioned in the backwards section of ‘Christian Rock Concert’ – “The body of Shane Fenton is in the laundry chute of the New Ambassadors Hotel near Euston Station” apparently). We belatedly realise that this is our 100th destination.
Ignorant of the fact that we’ve clocked up our century, we proceed down Gower Street and Shaftesbury Ave into Soho where we struggle with the one-way system, which is neither smooth nor commendable. As we stand on the pavement awkwardly consulting Google Maps on our phones, Dawes wryly remarks that this is the first time he’s sported lycra on Old Compton Street.
We’re looking for the Marquee Club, which doesn’t exist any more, but had various incarnations in the latter half of the past century. We decide that 90 Wardour Street – which of course saw performances from Husker Du, Captain Beefheart, Rush, Meatlof, ELO, Sun Ra, Delamitri and John Coltrane between 1964 and 1988 – is the most appropriate spot, so we take pictures outside what is now the Vapiano Italian restaurant.
Leaving behind the West End, we skirt round Leicester Square and down Charing Cross Road towards Whitehall. Our triumphant ride past Trafalgar Square is greeted by the London Symphony Orchestra blasting out the final strains of Elgar’s ‘Pomp and Circumstance’. We can think of no better way for the nation to voice its collective gratitude for the resumption of everyone’s favourite Half Man Half Biscuit themed cycling tour.
Bagging the requisite photos at the top of Whitehall, we hit the Embankment and head northeast along the river, making the most of the excellent new cycle superhighway (in your face, angry black cab driver). There’s some speculation that the Whitechapel that gets a mention in ‘Girlfriend’s Finished with Him’ is the one in Liverpool, but the references to costermongers and an Oi! Revival lead us to think otherwise. So we turn inland at Temple, and ride through the City to complete our afternoon’s work.
Heading back down Whitechapel High Street, we ‘photobomb’ (as I believe the modern terminology has it) a family posing for wedding photos. Pausing to wonder why the photographer decided that what the album really needed was a romantic image of the bride and groom standing by a busy cycle lane, we proceed home, speculating that today might represent a revival in the fortunes of the biscuit tour – if only we can stay injury-free….
Today we cycled to:
“The body of Shane Fenton is in the laundry chute of the New Ambassadors Hotel near Euston Station” (Christian Rock Concert)
“Met him at Prestigious Marquee Club” (Whit Week Malarkey)
“As long as my old man’s about / Scripting Whitehall farces” (Sensitive Outsider)
“An Oi! revival down Whitechapel Way” (Girlfriend’s Finished with Him)
Recently, various kind souls have been good enough to show their appreciation for Halfmanhalfbikekit, and I’m going to give them all the social media plugging they deserve. I met a number of keen supporters, particularly at the Indietracks Festival www.indietracks.co.uk, where among others I bumped into Chorizo Garbanzo of the music website http://trustthewizards.com/.
Shortly after returning to London, I was lucky enough to happen upon a presentation of the book and film Last Shop Standing, by Graham Jones http://lastshopstanding.com/, taking place at the wonderful Turnstyle Records, www.turnstylerecords.co.uk, which has recently opened just up the road from me. This proved to be the source of much Halfmanhalfbikekit interest, firstly from the warm, welcoming and encouraging Graham, but also from the affable Scott Bradbury from the band Chips for the Poor http://www.chipsforthepoor.com/, whom I would recommend if they’re playing near you. And as if this weren’t enough local biscuit-related stuff, the shop isn’t far from Norbury, where (as recorded in The Ballad of Climie Fisher) Fisher of course rented a flat when he got a job at the BBC Education Department.
I recommend watching Last Shop Standing, not least because Half Man Half Biscuit provide two songs for the soundtrack (Something’s Rotten in the Back of Iceland and Twydale’s Lament). Apart from that it’s a wonderfully eccentric eyeopener on the state of music retail nowadays, in particular the good old fashioned record shop.
Finally, Pip Piper, director of the film Last Shop Standing, whom I’ve yet to meet but would very much like to, has directed another film, Bicycle, which will surely be of interest to our followers: http://bicyclethefilm.com/screenings/
Keen followers of Half Man Half Bike Kit will remember that we bagged most of the London destinations last August. Our anniversary tour of the metropolis sees us attempt to add a few of the south-western outliers we were too idle to do then, as well as two new additions from ‘Urge for Offal’.
Starting off at what Nick calls “his gaff” (I’m pleased to say he doesn’t really), we head off in pursuit of three icons of British tennis – Centre Court, Henman Hill, and the Lawn Tennis Association. Arriving in leafy SW19, we follow mild-mannered tourists and men dressed like Ian Carmichael in ‘The School for Scoundrels’ towards the All-England Club. Wimbledon being the wonderful institution it is, the officials are very obliging, advising us on the best spots to get the required photographic evidence. One of them is even so kind to take 20 (twenty) pictures of us with our bikes in front of centre Court. In hindsight we should have borrowed some racquets to put up to our faces and pretend we’re Kendo Nagasaki (who incidentally follows us on Twitter) but we’re never organised enough to think of these things in advance. That’s why we’ll never be the main man in the office in the city.
Unfortunately, we’re not allowed in very far so we have to ascend some of the (surprisingly steep) hills in the suburbs around the grounds to try and spot Henman Hill (or Murray Mount as it’s now known). This proves harder than we think, although we convince ourselves that we can see a patch of grass belonging to it in one of the shots we take.
Our customarily haphazard navigation is even worse today due to mishaps with both GPS and smartphones, and our assumption that we’ll be fine with just an A-Z proves ill-founded as we leave the Home of Tennis behind. Our cross-country route over Putney Heath (which David notes has all the hallmarks of a dogging hotspot) and Wimbledon Common is complicated by a lack of cyclable roads, so we wheel our bikes disconsolately through dog turd strewn heathland before eventually reaching the far more pleasant and bike-friendly Richmond Park. Heading west on Sawyers Hill we’re overtaken by several proper cyclists, and get lost looking for Richmond Bridge before eventually reaching Twickenham. None of us is a Five Nations Aficionado, so the place doesn’t have the same appeal as Wimbledon, but we’re quite pleased with the shot we get from the car park.
Pausing to look for our lost Barbours and fix a puncture, we head back into town via Barnes, then at Hammersmith remember the eight words that give Nigel the green light to wallow (“Up next, Brand new Live at the Apollo”) of course. We then get slightly lost on London parkland again (Hyde Park this time) and in Bloomsbury, before reaching the day’s final destination. In the hot sun, surrounded by thousands of milling tourists (who’ve presumably come to see artefacts that Britain stole from their countries) the British Museum isn’t a pleasant place to be. We pose for grim-faced pictures and turn our steeds home without even buying a ginger beer from Midge Ure’s concession stand.
Today we cycled to:
“Wimbledon and WOMAD, Ryder Cup and V” (King of Hi-Vis)
“The Centre Court amusement at the ballboy’s mishap” (A Country Practice)
“And a storm broke over Henman Hill” (Evening of Swng has been Cancelled)
“I’m going to prove once and for all to the LTA” (San Antonio Foam Party)
“I lost my Barbour /In Twickenham car park” (Split Single with Happy Lounge Label Mates)
“Elitist preservatives decorate the table of a kitchen in Barnes” (Sensitive Outsider)
“Up next, brand new Live At The Apollo” (Stuck up a Hornbeam)
“Hey, he’s got the ginger beer concession outside the British Museum” (The Bane of Constance)
“What’s Chatteris if you’re not there?” For What is Chatteris
I left my heart in Papworth General
“Sampling Alessi in St Neots” Our Tune
Waking with mild hangovers, and to the scent of still-damp cycle-wear, we set off into the drizzle towards the fens. The morning’s ride is far more enjoyable than the typical biscuit tour fare. Instead of murderous A-roads or bleak post-industrial landscapes, we bowl along riverside cycle paths and quiet flat roads with lines of poplars on the horizon. We both have the strange sensation that we’re not in England, but one of those civilised continental countries where travel by bicycle is a by and large pleasant experience.
Our route along the Ouse takes us to the day’s first destination, Ely. Stopping for Double Deckers next to the spectacular cathedral (no gargoyles resembling Bob Todd by the way) we reflect that Chatteris is going to have to perform well to deserve its ‘Envy of the Fens’ status. On the way out of town, we pass next to Oliver Cromwell’s house. He’s not there, but we stop for a quick snog with the puritans standing guard outside.
Expectations are high as Chatteris nears. This is the Big One – the most famous destination immortalised by HMHB, unless you count Trumpton (and that was already immortal anyway). It’s fair to say that we’re a bit disappointed on our arrival: any decent market town with quintessence should have a proper sign bearing a coat of arms and details of a twin in Bavaria, but – nothing. However, like its town hall band’s CD, Chatteris is a grower. We can’t find a chandler’s but there is indeed at least one good butcher’s and a first class cake shop. The smooth and commendable one-way system is in evidence, and we witness no drive-by shoutings, let alone either of us being knocked on the bonce.Confident that we’re in a town with low car crime, and lower gun crime, we leave our bikes in the courtyard of the Golden Lion, whose proprietor points us the way of the Old Bakery Tea Room for lunch. They’ve just been proudly celebrating their 10th anniversary – the bunting’s up, and during our main course, the vicar pops by to congratulate them. As we eat our apple crumble and watch a procession of tractors pass by, we decide that Chatteris is doing fine for quintessence, whether you’re there or not. You can keep your Ely and your St Ives.
Bidding farewell to clean streets and award-winning swings, we push on through St Ives towards Papworth Everard (which sounds like a character in a long and difficult satirical novel) towards the day’s third destination. Instead of the sensible option of cycling through the village, we follow the roadsigns to the hospital that take us onto the motorway-like A-1198, where I’m very nearly flattened by a boy racer with little regard for lane etiquette.
Leaving our hearts at Papworth General, we begin the last leg of our weekend tour, pushing on through the well-kept villages of Yelling and Toseland into St Neot’s. The station is deserted and there’s no information about trains back to London, but what’s a timetable if your journey’s infinite?
“Godzilla eats Diss” – Let’s Not
“On Reaching the Wensum”
“I wanna fly my biplane low over Swaffham” On Reaching the Wensum
Though our map of destinations bagged is starting to look healthier (not too far off the half-way point now) a cursory glance reveals that we’ve previously neglected the East of England. This weekend we firmly aim to set that straight – our bags are packed and we’re leaving in a minute.
We begin our East Anglian odyssey at Bury St Edmunds (henceforth referred to as Bury Noel Edmunds or BNE) to see the band play at the Apex. It’s the first HMHB gig we’ve been to for over a year and it’s good to spot a few familiar faces, although due to a stop-off for burgers on the way to the venue, we just miss Chris Rand, mastermind behind the legendary HMHB lyrics site.
In the wake of the death of Christopher Lee, Blackwell et al come on stage to the strains of ‘Sumer is Icumen In’, prompting the more cinema-literate audience members to shout out quotes from ‘The Wicker Man’. Nick chides me for being baffled by all of these, as well as failing to identify Joy Division’s ‘Shadowplay’ during the encore.
Between songs there are musings on the East of England Tank Museum in (“It’s not like there are tank museums in the North, West or the South of England”); the pros and cons of wearing two jumpers at a Dead Kennedys gig; and a frisbee-share arrangement with Duncan Welch from school. We learn that Welch is yet to return the frisbee.
The following morning we leave BNE by the A-141, riding straight into the torrential downpour predicted by Blackwell, who’d seen the weather forecast on Countryfile. It’s no fun – all white vans speeding past, and overshoes filling up with lukewarm rainwater. After we bag Diss, things start looking up, with the rain easing off, and the roads becoming more bucolic – you can barely move for signs promising asparagus next left.
On reaching the Wensum, we bear west towards the day’s final destination. We’re disappointed at the lack of a decent sign to provide photographic evidence of our arrival (something along the lines of “Welcome to Swaffham, home to low-flying bi-planes” would have been nice) but decide that the ‘Swaffham Kebab & Pizza House’ will suffice.
Striking our usual winsome poses, we’re taken aback when a disgruntled junior employee with a vaguely threatening manner marches across the road and asks us why we we’re taking photographs of his establishment. We decide against explaining the Biscuit Tour, or pointing out to him that we’re not in Belarus, North Korea or any other regime with a poor human rights record, but in East Anglia, where freedom of the press is generally respected, and instead mumble something about needing to show we’re in Swaffham. He scuttles away moodily, saying nothing, and we reflect on the possibility that we might just have been mistaken for lycra-clad immigration officers. Sadly this episode of bizarre paranoia means we’re unable to recommend a visit to the Swaffham Kebab & Pizza House. Heaven knows what they’ll do if they ever find out they’re on Google Streetview.
‘Yeah that was me, down at Camber Sands’ (Lark Descending)
One of the many rewards of devoting your life to cycling to places mentioned in Half Man Half Biscuit songs is that you see a much underexplored side of Britain. A short train ride from our native London, with its Gok Wan acolytes, fair-trade cocaine, jog-proof I-pods and Ken Hom wok sets, is a world of forlorn seaside towns, massive crackling pylons next to caravans (static, naturally), and disused military installations.
Like HMHB, the Fall seem drawn to these kinds of landscapes, and so we kick off our tour of the Sussex-Kent coastline at their gig in Hastings. Playing under a banner that says ‘DEDICATION NOT MEDICATION – YOU DECIDE!’ (we vote for medication ) Mark E Smith and his terrified minions put in a decent shift , deigning to perform ‘Theme from Sparta FC’ as an encore.
Back at our accommodation (run by a lovely Armenian couple who are relaxed about us leaving our bikes in the way of the fire extinguisher) I dream of being transported to Mars, albeit a Mars where there are a lot of noisy seagulls. Their screeching is eventually replaced by the sounds of the young couple having energetic sex in the room next to mine.
The B and B turns out to provide only the first ‘B’ of the traditional B and B offering, so we have breakfast at the Indian restaurant next-door, to the accompaniment of some jaunty 80s hits, which prompts some animated debate about whether Starship had dropped the Jefferson before they recorded ‘We Built This City’. The day’s cycling starts off with some steep climbing out of Hastings into Fairlight, before following the coastline to the day’s two destinations: Rye, and the Pontin’s holiday camp at Camber Sands.
With May 7th a couple of weeks away, many of the citizens of Sussex and Kent have made their political views clear. Based on a detailed analysis of the posters and placards we cycle past, we can confidently predict that the outcome of the 2015 General Election will be:
Conservatives – 103 seats
Labour – 23 seats
Others – None
Cycling-wise there’s not much to report, other than the usual slow progress, confusion about routes, missed turnings, and fury with errant GPS devices. Mostly, it’s cold, damp and windy. It’s tempting to say it’s a miserable day, but you may like a bit of drizzle, so we’ll stick to the facts.
We lose one of our number in the Rye area, but reunite in a pub in New Romney, where we’re befriended by a rave era casualty who spends a good half hour shouting “Fuck off you Chelsea Scum!” at the TV, before realising Chelsea aren’t playing yet. Over pints of lime and soda we decide that Deal and Broadstairs can wait for another day – one when it’s not raining and Arsenal aren’t playing Chelsea. We luck out at the Swan Hotel in Hythe, where we’re just in time for the game and a lukewarm Sunday roast. Our train home is from Sandling, which is just a couple of miles away, and two letters short of being a dead wading bird, so an apt place to end another tour.
Mars Ultras, You’ll Never Make the Station
Waking late on the morning of Easter Sunday we wonder what we were thinking by planning a 70 mile ride after going to a nightclub with young people in it. The decision to cut short the day’s route is not a difficult one, so instead of dragging our dehydrated bodies on our bikes up the East Coast, we get the train from Cottingham to Scarborough. We feel a bit shame-faced as we stare out of the window watching Driffield, Nafferton and Seamer pass by, but assure each other that we haven’t broken any rules and can always do Filey another day.
The ride from Scarborough to Robin Hood’s Bay is challenging enough as it is. We start off on the cinder path along the old railway line , but this being Britain, the National Cycle Route isn’t fit to cycle on, so we instead take the hillier route along the A171. As we move northwards, things get tougher, largely because we have to contend with fast-moving Bank Holiday traffic as well as the climb onto the North Yorks Moors.
Eventually, we’re on the steep descent into Robin Hood’s Bay, the picturesque village that marks the end of the Coast to Coast Walk, and is home to friend of the Biscuit Tour, Eliza Carthy. We spend the evening at Ye Dolphin, where we encounter a large group of braying public school types who’ve been to a wedding. They announce in loud voices that the pub quiz taking place that evening sounds jolly fun, and come up with hilarious team names (“Quiz Quiztoffersen, Quiz on my Face, etc, etc. etc”). We’re no class warriors, but we’re also not ones to duck a challenge (cycling to Filey excepted) so stick around to take them on. Sadly, the quiz is an interminable affair, with inaudible questions and an undue emphasis on motor sports. The previous evening’s exertions starting to take their toll, we don’t stay the course through to the declaration of the results, so never find out if the quality of our comprehensive school education has triumphed over Bullingdon.
The next morning, fog lies heavy over the hills, so it’s on with the lights as we continue northwards; we pass through some beautiful scenery – moors to the west and coast to the East – but can’t see any of it. As we near journey’s end, Nick is slowed by some persistent back pain. I suggest that he try a spot of roadside yoga, and particularly recommend the ‘Cat-Cow’, pose by getting down on all fours and gently flexing his spine from a rounded position to an arched one. This gets the response it deserves “I’m not fucking doing that – we’re near Middlesbrough.”
Despite some difficult climbing we’re in Redcar, our final destination and apparently scene of many a Dawes childhood daytrip, by lunchtime. We’re just in time for the train to Darlington, where we have some time to kill before heading home, so we evaluate the weekend’s achievements over a meal at the Royal Thai and a couple of pints at the Greyhound next door. For someone who won’t do yoga near Middlesbrough, Dawes lacks any self-consciousness about his jukebox choices, opting for ‘Like a Virgin’ and ‘I Feel Love’ to entertain the Darlingtonians trying to have a quiet pint on Easter Monday.