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The Crucible, 28 April, 2013

“Shine your shoes and head for the Crucible”

Len Ganley Stance

After breakfast we realise that we’re short of cash to pay, but the landlady kindly lets us off by a fiver (maybe she’s anticipating a healthy haul of blood diamonds).

We then shine our shoes and head for the Crucible, where the World Snooker Championship is taking place, and get a passing tourist to snap us doing the Len Ganley stance.Image

My bike continues to fall apart – in addition to the nagging fear that the handlebars are going to fall off while I negotiate a busy roundabout, the gears are playing up, so I decide to give up the ghost.   The strict terms of reference mean  Nick isn’t allowed to bag destinations on his own, so sadly this means that we have to leave Rampton Secure Hospital for another day.

Nick writes:  It was a sad moment when I left Steve at Sheffield station. I had perhaps unwisely been trying to convince him that the missing pin from his handlebars (the bit which holds them in place) was but a minor issue, and that his bike was so old and stiff that it would continue hold itself together as it had done for a good few miles. I even went as far as to suggest he should ride my bike and I would ride his, as I have less regard for my own personal safety than he does (which is the only reason why I’m faster than him cycling down hills). Either way, Steve’s common sense won out, and there was to be no trip to Rampton Secure Hospital, the Wripple Vetivers having ruled that the solo bagging of HMHB destinations doesn’t count. We still had to get to Retford though, to get the train back home which our bikes were booked onto.

As he waited patiently for the morning’s engineering works to finish and get a local train to Retford (regardless of whether a bus replacement service should be called a train replacement service, bikes are not permitted on them) I continued on to Retford by bike, frustrated that the next 30 miles would not count at all as part of the tour.

My frustration was further compounded by a maze of roundabouts and dual carriageways and the poorly signed cycleways that were supposed to accompany them on my long, slow and difficult escape through the urban decay of the eastern edge of Sheffield. Having finally found the reasonably-signposted Trans-Pennine Trail cycle path, I watched the countryside do battle with an array of piles of burnt rubbish and isolated housing estates. I felt like an extra in Kes.

Finally out of Sheffield, I rode through the bizarrely-named village of Wales, which begins with a series of foul-smelling industrial units and ends with a more pleasant landscape towards Kiveton Park.

Len Ganley stanceAs I was growing bored of the ride having no HMHB-related purpose, I decided to create one to improve my motivation. Steve was expecting to arrive in Retford by train at around 2.30pm. My progress out of Sheffield had been painfully slow, having become seriously lost on many occasions, but if I picked up the pace, I could still arrive before him. As I pedalled through Worksop, home to a large and highly visible population of heroin addicts (over 1% of the town’s population according to Labour MP John Mann) and flew past the scary-looking HMP Ranby, for which various Worksopians are undoubtedly destined, I finally arrived in Retford, 2 minutes before Steve did, although my delight in my achievement was far from that experienced from bagging any HMHB destination.

On reuniting in Retford, we prepare an afternoon of football viewing.  I like my small town pubs with Sky Sports, but insist we leave Alberto’s Bar, which is filled with racist Manchester United fans.

After a depressing meal at the Phoenix (we speculate about how much we’d pay someone to erase our memory of it) we head back on to the London train, trying to manage a smile.  It’s not like we’ve been captured by Barbary Corsairs.

Saltergate, 27 April, 2013

Late pen Saltergate

Belsize Squat”,

Four Skinny Indie Kids


After a very comfortable night (marred slightly for Nick by the fact that in my unconscious state I mistake him for a female companion and start stroking his leg) we emerge from the caravan wrongly assuming that everything’s going to be ok again.

SaltergateThings continue in a cheery vein over what is probably the best breakfast we’ve ever had at a B and B (thanks again Roger!) We chat with the Evertonians, and a couple who – without anyone making them! – have read this blog.

After bidding goodbye and profusely thanking Roger for his generosity, we leave town, and I notice that the rattling has stopped.  Unfortunately, I also notice that the bit of my bike that threads through the stem of the handlebars has gone.  Suspecting that this might be quite important, we stop off at a bike shop in Matlock, where I’m informed that this is “potentially catastrophic.”  He doesn’t have any spare parts, and we deduce that it must have come out last night when I turned the bike upside down to put the chain back on.

There follows a glum and fruitless hour scouring the streets of Matlock Bath in the rain for the missing part, before resigning ourselves to having to cut short the tour in the name of avoiding death.   So there’s no trip to Mansfield today, although we decide to go as far as Chesterfield (the bike man says it’s probably ok to ride, as long as I don’t hit a pot-hole at speed).

On the ascent from Matlock, we ride straight into a vicious hailstorm, and are pelted with stones the size of golfballs both up and down hill.  Spindrift stinging our remaining eye, we officially declare it National Shite Weekend.

Still, we make it to Chesterfield and bag a destination.  Saltergate is no longer the home of Chesterfield FC, and is in the process of being turned into a housing estate, but that means nothing to the Wripple Vetivers, so we pose for a quick snap, before the lady from Barratt Homes emerges from the Portakabin and tells us to get off the grass. “It’s only been laid three days ago you know….”.  She definitely knows where things are at B and Q.

Then more gloom.   Stopping off in a pub to shelter from the conditions – hail has turned into torrential rain – Nick realises that his jacket zip is broken and that he’s lost his house-keys  (later I realise I’ve picked them up accidentally, but not until after a period of acute panic followed by renewed despondency).

Clown BikeStill, we somehow make it to Sheffield, and to the Thornsett Guest House, where we encounter a new level of B and B-related eccentricity.  The landlady invites us to leave our bikes in her lounge, and over a cup of tea, tells us that “He” is mining for diamonds in Sierra Leone, leaving her alone to deal with difficult guests.   Apparently, it’s  a lucrative business, and one that any self-respecting, able-bodied man should be in: “I don’t know why you don’t go there”, she says to us,  as if we’re idle layabouts, who mis-spend their time cycling around England when there are diamonds to be gathered in Sierra Leone.    She also says she doesn’t mind telling us that she doesn’t like female guests, and recounts with relish the time she turned away a woman who arrived an hour and a half later than she said she would.

Vagueness clouds the details of our booking, but we end up in a twin room, before heading for an evening out with old friend Gary, who has a good laugh at everything we’ve been through, especially the state of my “clown bike”

Don’t stay at the Charles B and B, Matlock Bath (HMHB, Matlock Bath Pavilion, 26 April, 2013)

“He said I’ll love you til I die

She told him you’ll forget in time”

George Jones  – He stopped loving her today

So far, biscuit tours have been blessed with good fortune – pedals only falling off when we’re safely back in London, Sylvia of the Falcon being in a good mood,  no-one being crushed under a truck.  That kind of thing.

DPAKThe gods that made the gods are feeling much less indulgent on this tour.

I should have heeded the early omen of the strange rattling noise coming from somewhere at the front of my bike.   No matter, I think – it’ll sort itself out.   But on arrival at Matlock Bath, we soon realise we’ve been brushed by the wings of something dark.   

The staff at the Charles B and B, which had looked promising at the outset (offering both accommodation and pies) deny any knowledge of our booking, made several weeks ago, and are utterly unsympathetic to our plight.  A surly youngster refuses to help in any way, leaving us to find alternative arrangements even though everywhere’s been booked for ages because HMHB are in town.

It’s now 8:45 and the band will be on stage soon.   A random bloke at the Charles mentions a place called the Gables, a mile and a half up the road, but we find only a holiday cottage already occupied by a family.  “You can stay in my nan’s room” if you like, says the man.  I’d have favoured waiting to see what his nan looked like, but Nick is already on the phone looking for alternative arrangements.  

Back in town, we try the rather splendid-looking Hodgkinson’s Hotel, but no room at the inn there either. Finally, we speak to Roger, who runs a place called the Cables (not Gables).  He’s fully booked too, but in a display of extraordinary kindness, not only puts us up in his new luxury caravan (not static) but also insists on driving us to the gig, and coming to pick us up afterwards.JDOGs

Thanks to Roger, we make it to the Matlock Pavilion, an amazing venue (it’s like a post-apocalyptic scout hut, festooned in bunting made from old newspapers) just in time to see Nigel and the boys  arrive on stage to the strains of Tchaikovsky.  We meet up with our friend Sarah, who’s brought her home-made Joy Division oven-gloves.

Some moshers with poor social skills aside, it’s another great gig.  Inbetween songs (there’s a particularly rousing Joy in Leeuwarden) NB offers betting tips on the Giro d’Italia (you can still get 20-1 on Sammy Sanchez if you’re interested) and snatches of George Jones songs.  For the encore they pull off a surprisingly touching version of ‘Femme Fatale ‘ by the Velvet Underground

Afterwards we chat to some friendly Matlockians, before Roger arrives with our lift.  Assuming that he wanted us to get back in time to avoid disturbing them, we’re pleasantly surprised when he offers us a drink, and we end up in his lounge with Scotch and coke and three blokes from Everton who were also at the gig.


Roger’s caravan, not static, naturally.

Correctly attired in football shirts and with heads fully shaved , they are proper HMHB fans and we swap stories of past gigs including a few about the ‘Bates motel’ near Holmfirth, run by an unconvincing transvestite.   Then they get out Roger’s Wii for some late-night golf and bowling, at which point we make our excuses and head to the caravan.   

Luton Town, 16 February 2013

“Sealed Knot Society, let’s see you try and do this one:
Luton Town – Millwall, nineteen eighty-five

Uffington Wassail

P1000581If further proof were needed that God is a Half Man Half Biscuit Fan, or possibly just a fan of skirmishes between rival branches of the English Defence League, it emerges on ITV on 27 January.

In the middle of an otherwise unremarkable fifth round FA Cup draw is Luton Town v. Millwall.   The draw the Sealed Knot Society didn’t want.  There follows an excited exchange of text messages.  We know we have to try and go, but there’s an Arsenal v.  Biscuit conflict for me – I don’t want to miss our game against Blackburn if I can help it.   As a Stockport County fan, Nick is untroubled by such problems.

We should have realised that the re-enactment of the notorious 1985 clash would be an early kick-off.  This means I’ve easily got enough time to cycle the 30 miles from Bowes Park to Kenilworth Road, watch the first half, get a train back to St Pancras, and be at the Emirates in time for Arsenal’s inevitable straightforward win against Blackburn.

Our attempts to buy tickets from the Luton Town website are predictably futile, so the plan is to get as near to the ground as we can for some photos with our bikes (that’ll be interesting) then watch the game in a pub with our Lutonian friend Catherine and her husband Andy, who we’ve appointed as the Biscuit Tour’s official  multimedia strategist and stakeholder relations manager. P1000585

There’s an initial setback when our Friday night planning session over-runs by several hours, meaning we set off half an hour late and somewhat green around the gills, but it’s a nice day and a flat route, along the kinds of well-heeled roads where the biggest peril is range rovers shooting out of gravel driveways.

We arrive in Luton in time to follow the fans towards the ground, and narrowly avoid stepping on a pair of heavily soiled underpants on the footbridge over Hatters’ Way.  The closer we get to Kenilworth Road, the more we stand out as lycra-clad, helmeted twats, so we take our photos as quickly as we can and turn back.

On the way back to town we encounter shades of the scenes that so disgusted the nation in 1985.  (David Icke could barely hide his contempt for the “perverted little minds” of these  “so-called fans”  – an obligatory term at the time – but then he probably knew that the reptilian overlords were behind it all.) There’s a whole host of riot police on horseback (unfortunately we’ve forgotten to bring our sugar lumps) and the muffled shouts of Millwall fans from the subway beneath us.  Oddly, we’re also approached by a very well-spoken lady who asks:  “Can I interest you at all in a lighter for £1?”P1000588

Andy and Catherine have ruled out most of the town’s pubs on the basis that they’re “too aggro”, so we instead end up at a family-friendly Wetherspoon’s.  Despite a few spells of pressure, Luton are undone by half-time, so leaving the others to discuss strategies and logistics for future tours, I get the train back to London.  I’m at my seat in the Emirates in time for a limp display and another cup exit to lower-league opposition.  It’s been a good day for the biscuit tour but, like 13 March 1985,  a sorry day for football.

Eyam, Mam Tor and Matlock Bath, Sunday 9 December 2012

“Well we both grew up in EyamP1000523
And strange as it may seem
Neither of us thought we’d ever leave…
“When you’re in Matlock Bath
You Don’t need Sylvia Plath”
The Light at the End of the Tunnel
“Great Uncle Corduroy
Invited us down to his gite
Fresh bread, Kaleidoscope
Kinder Scout and Mam Tor”
Split Single with Happy Lounge Labelmates
Over breakfast we contemplate scenes of more apocalyptic weather (thanks very much, climate change).  This time it’s torrential rain, accompanied by predictions (slightly too smug for our liking) from the landlord that it’s only going to get worse.   But we didn’t get to be Britain’s most successful Half Man Half Biscuit-themed bicycle tourers by worrying about a bit of rain, P1000517 so it’s on with the helmets and the reasonably priced cyclewear, and back east onto the moors.
Today there’s some hill-walking on the agenda.  We’ve ruled out doing Kinder Scout on the grounds of lack of time and energy, but Mam Tor looks quite manageable.  By the time we get there, the rain has been replaced by ferocious Arctic winds.  Chaining our bikes at the bottom, more to stop them blowing away than to protect them from local felons, we battle our way to the top, overtaken by energetic nine-year-olds.
Back on the road a terrifying descent, where we’re buffeted by more icy winds, follows.  We later learn that David ‘Deathwish’ Davies only has one fully functioning brake.  Reflecting that it’s always the people who look the most normal who turn out to be maniacs, we stop for a tea and cakes  at Castleton, where we also buy some tat carefully chosen gifts for friends and loved ones.
The latter half of the day’s stage is a nailbiting race against the clock as we bid to ensure we meet the twin challenges of ticking off Eyam and not missing our train back to London
Although Eyam has lifted its anti-plague quarantine, we haven’t got time to look around, so after some low-level bickering about routes we push on into Baslow and Darley Dale, finally passing through the grounds of Chatsworth stately home.
Plath - not needed here

Plath – not needed here

At Matlock Bath, we need to make clear that we don’t need Sylvia Plath.  She’s come with us in the form of a slim volume from Waterstone’s, and we initially plan to leave her in the County and Station pub (of which one Google reviewer has brilliantly said: “It is all stickey when we went there”).  However, unlike her namesake at Bromyard’s Falcon, this Sylvia is a sensitive soul who has already suffered enough, so we instead drop her off at the station, leaving her on a lamp-post for the enjoyment of literary-minded commuters, as we make our way home.

New Mills, Saturday 8 December 2012

“No Frills, Handy for the Hills, That’s the way you spell New Mills”
The Light at the End of the Tunnel
P1000490We awake to scenes of tundra as far as the eye can see, and  rumours that the main road to Glossop  has been closed.  Undaunted, we embark on the day’s work – a mere 20 miles across the moors.  The initial plan to start off on a disused stretch of railway line is abandoned in the name of good sense, and we stick instead to main roads.  Just before Dunford Bridge we pass an electricity substation where, heedful of the public information films of the late seventies and early eighties, we decide not to have a game of frisbee.
At the junction with the main A628, a fellow wheelman, who’d managed to tackle the Glossop road that morning despite its apparent closure, informs us that this main road is open and free of ice, so we have a speedy descent off the moors, marred only by the proximity and velocity of a series of large trucks, one of which, from Romania, has a good go at killing all of us in turn.
At the western edge of the moors is Hadfield, where they filmed ‘The League of Gentlemen’.  It’s every bit as sinister as Royston Vasey.   We don’t have much luck on spotting Little Don’s Roundabout Zoo, although there is a butcher that looks like they’d sort us out with some of the special stuff.
For some reason, there’s a Dolly Parton-themed café here, where we stop for lunch, fortunately avoiding the Royston café (hygiene rating = “Major improvement necessary”)
Hogging the comfy sofas and eating large slabs of cake (not Dolly-Parton themed in any obvious way), we observe the locals with interest, particularly a man who looks like he’s come here to celebrate his 137th birthday and has the thickest, most incomprehensible Derbyshire accent we’ve ever heard. A local cafe for local people
The staff take everything in their stride.  There’s a tense moment when a customer comes in and asks for a tuna and sweetcorn bap – an item which she should have realised isn’t on the menu.  But unlike the man who works in the 24-hour garage, the waitress a model of helpfulness:  “Well we’ve got tuna, and we’ve got sweetcorn, so I’m sure we can do tuna and sweetcorn!” she says, displaying the can-do spirit that will surely pull this country out of recession.
One consonant down the road is Hayfield where, much preferring some Arthur Lowe to some Arthur Lee, we make a pilgrimage to the Blue Plaque that marks the birthplace of Captain Mainwaring and adeptly perform the famous “Don’t tell him Pike!” scene.
We resist the temptation to deface a nearby sign that says “Children’s Christmas Party – All Welcome!” by adding “Not you, Stuart Hall!” before a quick drink at the Kinder Lodge,   where we overhear a child saying he’s just been up his nan’s chimney. It’s good to learn that common sense Victorian values still hold sway in many parts of Broken Britain.
Don't tell him, Pike!
As the evening sun goes down, we’re nearly at our next placename. Dropping our bags off at the Waltzing Weasel, which is en route, we proceed to New Mills.  Handy for the hills it may be, but it appears to lack any other features of merit, and it’s dark and raining, so we turn our steeds round and return to the Weasel. I have a bath in my large room while musing on the remarkable news that Arsenal have won a game of football.  Then we drink Scotch in large, comfortable chairs, exchanging stories about HMHB and cycling like retired colonels, before an equally large, comfortable dinner.

Half Man Half Biscuit, Holmfirth Picturedrome, Fri 7 December 2012

Oh before the gods that made the gods were born
Yes before the gods that made the gods were born
Yes before the gods that made the gods
Woke up and made the gods

That’s how long Neil’s been saying Stuart Hall

This is the first time we’ve combined the bike tour with a gig, and they’re as good as any of us have seen them, with Blackwell hitting a rich vein of Operation Yew Tree-related comedy.

To get there we’ve traversed the snowy wastes of West Yorkshire, getting lost in the grounds of Wakefield College, wheeling our bikes through mangrove swamps, and crossing sinister enclosed bridges over runnels.   We feel like contestants on Junior Kickstart (was there ever a senior Kickstart?)

On arrival in Holmfirth, we find it full of balding overweight forty-somethings in black T-shirts with slogans like “Still Hate Thatcher”.  Their husbands are here too.   We’re at the venue just in time for a superb opening double-salvo of ‘Irk the Purists’ and ‘When the Evening Sun Goes Down’, before Blackwell starts bantering with the fans.  “Apparently, some kids nicked a crate of Red Bull.  I don’t know how they can sleep at night”.  He goes on to muse on the satisfaction of Boxing Day matches when you’re a season-ticket holder at a poorly supported club, and his Christmas gift selections – “I’ve got my mother-in-law a UK Subs seven-inch”.

P1000485Musically, they earn comparisons (from David Davies) with Crazy Horse.    There’s an excellent ‘Used to be in Evil Gazebo’, with Stuart Hall replacing the owl as umpire of the Boy v. Bear table tennis match, and a dramatic pause before the “I’ve Been in a mental Hospital” refrain.   We have an enjoyable bellow along to ‘The Light at the End of the Tunnel’, which name-checks three of the destinations we’re about to visit.   Other highlights include ‘National Shite Day’, which sees an inflatable sanderling hurled on stage, although Blackwell notes, astutely, that it looks more like a tern.  The obligatory encore cover version  is ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’ – I’m sure he sings “Like a Nine Stone Cowboy” at one point.  At the Elephant and Castle later, Nick and David meet a man who says he couldn’t accept a life partner who didn’t share his love of HMHB, Cathal Coughlan of the Fatima Mansions, and Jocky Wilson.    Sounds perfectly reasonable.

Stroud, 27 August 2012

Stroud, 27 August 2012

Well I know what you look like, so don’t ever come near Stroud

‘Bad Review’

Generations of my ancestors lived in the Forest of Dean, so I should probably feel some sort of deep connection with the past as we cycle through the villages I would visit as a lad.   As it is, I feel like a crap cyclist who wants to get to Coleford for a cup of tea and a biscuit because it’s raining.

Unfortunately, it’s a bank holiday, so most of the shops and cafés there are shut. The only place we find open is a Turkish place, and our waitress has a fascinating half-Turkish, half- Gloucestershire accent. I wonder what my granny, who lived most of her life in Coleford, would make of this.   The Forest is a lot hillier than I remember, but it doesn’t take us too long to get to the eastern edge, despite an unsuccessful attempt to locate the Rockfield recording studios along the way.  (Del Amitri of Irk the Purists fame once recorded there; reminding us how a friend of Nick’s once persuaded him that the lead singer was called Derek Amitri).

The lack of bridges over the Severn means we have to go all the way up to Gloucester to get to Stroud.  It’s around this point that we begin a long and gruelling search for a nice place to have lunch. Quedgely initially sounds promising, but turns out to be an industrial estate with only a KFC. Indeed, for a good eight miles, it feels as if we have slipped into an eternal trading estate of the spotless mind.  Hardwicke and Haresfield are disappointing, although, on a country lane, we do spot a Gas Board man in a gas board van, using up his hour in lieu. Shame it wasn’t the Water Board, but you can’t have everything.

I seem to remember my sister (one of Stroud’s notable inhabitants) saying that Stonehouse is nice, so we stop off there.  Unfortunately, I’m thinking of the wrong place – it’s a dump and the pubs serve hostile glances instead of food..    This prompts a spell of low-blood-sugar fuelled ranting about the state of the country, and how it’s not surprising that we’re in a recession when you can’t even get a plate of chips on a Bank Holiday Monday.

As overhead a rainbow appears – in black and white – we resolve to push on into Stroud.  I’ve been there a lot, and am confident that I know exactly the way into town.   Naturally, we end up cycling round and round in torrential rain until Nick, wisely ignoring my adamant claims that I know where I am now, gets directions from a stranger instead.

As we pose under the town sign, our smiles are grim, and there’s speculation that Morrissey may have been right about the last mile being the hardest mile.  However, we’re soon in the Market Tavern, finally eating, and sitting in a cloud of steam as our festering clothes dry out. We’re joined by my sister and her young offspring, who announce that David’s silver bike is the best, and that they’re coming with us next time.  Apart from that, they’re more interested in eating sweets than in our heroic achievements.

By the way, there would have been even more fantastic photos in this blog, but I dropped my phone near Quedgely and then rode my bike over it.

Lord Hereford’s Knob, Gwent and Tredegar, 26 August 2012

Lord Hereford’s Knob, Gwent and Tredegar, 26 August 2012

To South East Wales I was forced to flee
And now I have no job
That’s why tonight I’m sitting on top of Lord Hereford’s Knob

Lord Hereford’s Knob

I’ve got a cousin in Tredegar
But he’s unreliable
And undeniably a rank buffoon

Secret Gig

I’ve been to Kent, Gwent and Senegal
I’ve even been to look for Jim Rosenthal

Bob Wilson, Anchorman

Over breakfast, we’re mistaken for proper cyclists by a book-obsessed French couple – inbetween stories about world statesmen shooting wild boar, they suggest that we’d have no trouble at all cycling through the Pyrenees.  As it is, it’s enough of a struggle climbing out of Hay up the Gospel Pass into the Black Mountains.  It’s brilliant at the top though – fantastic views, and also an ice cream van.  With Lord Hereford’s Knob, aka Twmpa (‘Twmpa Twmpa, you’re gonna need a jumper’) in sight, and under no illusion that the Judging Panel will let us get away with not sitting on top of it, we chain up our bikes at the car park. 

At this point, we’re joined by an exceptionally friendly dog, who drops a ball at my feet and persuades me into a high-stakes game of ‘fetch’.  As he seems to be tiring of my five-yard throws, I toss the ball a bit further, my blood freezing when I see it start bouncing hundreds of feet towards the bottom of the valley.  Fortunately, it stops on a ledge, and I avoid being responsible for another furry death (when I was a sleep-walking eight-year-old, I let the hamster out of his cage and the cat got him).

On the trek to the summit, we spot an ominous figure atop a distant peak, and realise immediately that he or she is a member of the Judging Panel, closely monitoring our progress. Nick, who has undertaken detailed research in the area, informs us that JP members have historically gone under the name of ‘the Wripple Vetivers’, and like the Gubba Lookalikes they seem to be everywhere.   But they’ve got nothing on us today – the top of Lord Hereford’s Knob is clearly marked with a cairn, and we’re quite clearly sitting on it.

On our descent, jubilation soon turns to despondency, as we speculate that our bikes have probably been stolen, and that if they have, we’ll all have to kill ourselves. But they haven’t, and we get to ride them down into the Vale of Ewyas to stop for lunch at the Half Moon Inn – apparently highly recommended by Nick’s uncle. It’s a strange and melancholic place where a child practises mournful tunes on a piano, the world’s saddest looking towel hangs in the toilets, and surly staff serve us chilli with baked beans in it.  Post-tour research reveals that we should have visited the Llanthony Priory hotel instead, where the towels are sure to be pristine and happy, and any piano-playing children would be qualified to at least Grade 5.

Over lunch, we decide to avoid another steep climb through Mynydd Llangatwg  by taking a short cut through Abergavenny.  This involves cycling along the A465 “Heads of the Valleys Road”, which turns out to be the most soul-destroying stretch of highway in the British Isles.  Progress is slow, and we suffer abuse from uncouth motorcyclists. The only vague bright spot is that we pass (in the opposite direction, obviously) proper cyclists on the Junior Tour of Wales, who shoot us admiring glances. My blood sugar is dropping, and I’m starting to think I won’t be able to make it the whole way, so we stop at a bus stop to eat sweets and discuss our seething hatred of Welsh motorcyclists.

Passing through a series of grim post-industrial towns that could provide cost-efficient backdrops for Ridley Scott’s forthcoming Blade Runner sequel, we eventually make it to Tredegar, refusing to go a yard beyond the sign. Ticking off one of the trickier HMHB destinations boosts morale, and we turn our bikes back round to head back east towards the border.  Deciding that we need another break, I insist that we stop off in Blaenavon, which, according to the sign on the way, is a World Heritage Site, leading us to seriously question the integrity of the WHS selection committee.  I spot a great-looking pub (it’s got Sky Sports – what more do you want?!) but have to overcome stiff opposition from David and Nick, who are dubious about the safety of our bicycles outside.  I’m forced to admit they may have a point: the clientele all have shit arms and bad tattoos, and the men aren’t much better.  David overhears one of them in the toilet, proclaiming how much he’d like to “fuck my mate’s wife in here”.

As the evening sun goes down, we plod on towards Dingestow, near Monmouth — surely a destination that deserves to be immortalised by HMHB.  There’s a moment of unbearable tension when it emerges that we may be too late for dinner, but Nick employs some of the negotiating skills that have made him one of the finest media sales operatives in the luxury yacht business. After dinner, and having treated the two other customers to our jukebox selections, it takes us a while to find the B&B in the dark, and we almost collide with a badger, but another day ends in triumph, with sixty miles, a mountain range and two more destinations under our belts.

Leominister and Hay-on-Wye, 25 August 2012


Leominister and Hay-on-Wye, 25 August 2012

Me go Leominster eat dog’s heart

Little in the Way of Sunshine

Like Jennifer in Rye
and Phil in Hay-on-Wye
who requested “My Oh My”

Nove on the Sly

We’re growing increasingly accustomed to the idiosyncratic ways of Britain’s B&B owners, but nothing has prepared us for Sylvia, proprietress of the Falcon in Bromyard.  Actually, that’s not true at all – a series of terrifying hotel reviews posted online has prepared us for Sylvia – in fact, imbued in us a degree of excited anticipation.

According to TripAdviser legend, Sylvia:

1)    Once, ignoring pleas from the groom, acted out a rape scene at a wedding reception


3)    Makes “allegations of a personal nature” [unspecified] against guests who complain

As it is, we’re treated to a decent performance – by no means disappointing, but she’s not quite at the peak of mid-season form either. We encounter her the morning after a nightmarish ride from Worcester (birthplace of David Davies, who reminisces that all this used to be fields while we’re cycling around, lost, in the town centre) to Bromyard in biblical rain.  I’m staying at my Mum’s, just round the corner, while David and Nick, in the spirit of adventure, have opted to spend the night at the Falcon. 

Meeting there for breakfast, we’re initially served by Sylvia’s husband, John, who bears the weary look of a man who gave up any hope of self-determination in 1978. Sylvia bustles in and immediately takes him to task for his failure to ask us if we want tea, before taking our orders, at which point Nick makes his fatal mistake:

SYLVIA:  And for you?

DAVID:  Full English, but [summoning up courage] without eggs or black pudding please

NICK: That’s all right, David – I’ll have your eggs and black pudding

SYLVIA: [Stopping to fix Nick with a steely gaze, as if he’s suggested something improper]  We do not do it like that here.

The morning’s ride passes without major incident, and by early afternoon, having paid 10p each to cross the world’s most reasonably priced toll bridge, we’re in Hay-on-Wye.  Or possibly we’ve drowned and gone to Guardian Reader Heaven.  In any case, there are an inordinate number of tea shops and bookshops, and signs urging us to forsake the Kindle.  While David seeks out rare volumes of poetry and Nick browses books about diving, I fall asleep on a chaise longue, ‘One Hundred Lists About Arsenal’ on my chest.

Despite Hay being Wales’ ponciest town, it takes us a while to find somewhere to eat, but we eventually find the Old Black Lion, where we’re served by a waitress who resembles a voluptuous version of TV’s Jenny Éclair, and takes a shine to David.  When he informs her that we’re about to cycle 60 miles, she flutters her eyelashes and asks him: “Oh, you like punishment, do you?  I bet you’ve read that Fifty Shades of Grey, haven’t you?”.  We decide to take a cross-country short-cut back to the B and B and, as is customary, get very lost, prompting David to speculate that he should have stayed at the pub and tried his chances.