Just before Christmas I stood with a group of people on a wooded hillside in England’s South Downs.
It was a restful spot, the trees protecting us from the wind and impending rain. Which is fitting, because this was the South Downs Natural Burial Site and we were there for the funeral of my old cycling friend from university days, Paul.
Over the grave few words were spoken, except a reading of the poem Adlestrop, by Edward Thomas, Paul’s favourite and definitely one of mine.
Yes. I remember Adlestrop—
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.
The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop—only the name
And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.
And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.
It paints a picture of a timeless England, captured in a moment known to all those who walk or cycle. And Paul was definitely one of those, a cycle tourist with a deep love of the English countryside, its wildlife and its scenery.
I said that Paul was an old friend, because our active friendship was well over 30 years ago, when we were at Durham University in the early 80s. In fact, in recent years we were hardly in touch. The fault is almost certainly mine, I have always been the most terrible correspondent, I never get beyond the current work or life pressure to make time to catch up, somehow I just hope and trust that my friends are still out there, something that is my loss.
Despite that distance I felt I had to attend Paul’s funeral. Definitely it was to support our friend Mike who was much closer to Paul than me and delivered a tribute to their friendship which was one of the most moving eulogies I have ever heard.
But I also feel I owe Paul a huge personal debt, one I never got the chance to thank him for, one he would perhaps never know he was responsible for. I am sure that without Paul’s influence Idonotdespair would not have happened, in fact my career change nearly twenty years ago to join CTC and take up a full time cycling career can be traced in a direct line back to his influence. That’s very special and belatedly I want to say thanks.
We first cycled together in January 1981. I had turned up the previous term and made contact with the University Cycling Club, but they must have assumed I was just another fresher who was all talk because I hadn’t actually brought a bike with me. But in January I was serious and I brought one of the battered “hacks” that were (and still are) my winter steeds, a botched together collection of second-hand parts that created a just about usable machine.
I cannot remember how many people were there, but I can guess it was the trio of Paul, Mike and Phil who would have been there almost every week leading us all over the hills and valleys of the North Pennines. In turn the three of them graduated and left me to my stint as club captain. In that time and in the few years after we not only rode the roads and byways of the north, we toured in many corners of the UK and I experienced my first cycle tours abroad. The grainy pictures I dug out of my albums may look faded, but those memories are intense, we were young and sharing a sense of exploration and achievement, while somewhere along the way we became adults.
But within our group Paul was always different. His personality can only be described as “English eccentric”, he was a quirky individual who endlessly amused us.
He also amused me with his cycling too, for me he had a whole bunch of odd habits that I had never come across before. What I didn’t know was that he had begun educating me into a whole new world called the CTC – the Cyclists’ Touring Club, the people with whom he had learned his cycling in Leicestershire.
Paul could and would ride all day, but he was the only person we knew in those days who had a triple chainset, so he would twiddle along at one pace in his low gears, no matter how big the hill. The rest of us would heave and haul ourselves up and have a bit of a race to the top, but Paul – never. He would travel endless extra miles to avoid ever, ever, having to ride on a main road, indeed he would rather ride his touring bike on tracks and trails rather than a main road. It was called Rough Stuff in those days, long before anyone had conceived mountain bikes, and Paul was a great bike handler in all conditions. He may not have gone up fast, but he could descend like a brick.
His bike was itself a classic of its kind, the legend of the CTC, a Dawes Galaxy with TA triple chainset, Brooks saddle, Carradice saddlebag and traditional yellow cycling cape in a roll, but at the time I had never seen anything like it. Each part was there for just the right reason. Years later after my wife met him at Mike’s wedding she remembered him as “your friend Spokes” because she had never met anyone who could hold a 30-minute conversation just on the subject of the perfect wheel build, but Paul sure could.
Something of that CTC ethos must have rubbed off on this aggressive boy racer. The talk started to matter as much as the speed. The places we stopped meant as much as the hills we raced up. I learned to appreciate routes that meandered more than how far we went. Waiting at the top of the hill for riders of all paces became second nature. And at some point in that process I joined the CTC for the first time and discovered what Paul was teaching me, the world of the traditional British cycle tourist.
I may have carried on with my love of bike racing and fast riding but I learned that there were alternatives, this gentle world of cycle touring had captured me, knowing that it is just as important to celebrate the slow lane as much as the fast.
When Mike and I met up at the funeral we did as much laughing as crying because the memories kept coming back, a mental gallery of “moments with Paul”, from insane rides in the snow to impromptu camping in a French farmer’s field. Moments that cannot be taken away and that bind us together as much as they remind us of Paul.
The rest, we might say, is history. In 1998 I became Director of the CTC. A position I probably wouldn’t have even known about without the initiation I had been given years earlier by my cycling friend. And when I went cycling with the many CTC local groups I felt I was among friends, so whatever the stresses of leading a complicated organisation through some challenging times I had those simple pleasures to fall back on. Could I have lasted 14 years there without that background? I doubt it.
Thanks for all you gave me Paul. Rest in peace under the trees and the bird boxes.