A Journey Around the British Isles … Part 109
There’s just one final hill and a final phone call, which is actually only the second I have made on the journey. (Communication with home has been both ancient in the form of long letters each day, and modern in the form of texts that often gave a necessary boost when spirits were down). We arrange to meet at a health club in Chesterfield where I can catch up with what has been happening and give my account of the final day in an over-sized jacuzzi with jets of hot water pummelling my aching muscles. I say I’ll be there in an hour and then set off towards Baslow. Within two hundred yards I start to think that an hour was an optimistic estimate. My legs have gone to sleep. The road in front appears quite flat but it suddenly feels very hard work indeed.
At Baslow I buy a cake to see if I’ve simply bonked (cycling expression for running out of fuel) and it does seem to do the job. I’ve never bought anything in Baslow without having either my vocabulary or pronunciation challenged. It is the sort of place where they know better than you and are not slow in pointing this out. I like all of the Derbyshire villages whether they be affluent haunts of retired grandees or run down communities recovering from a closed down colliery. I’m not designed to get on with Baslow though. It’s an attractive and well-maintained place; we just don’t make a happy couple.
“Can I have some of the chocolate cake please?”
“You mean the torte?”
I’m sure they are very pleasant and only trying to be helpful. One day I’ll be educated enough to order something without need for correction.
For the next mile or so there is no choice but to share the main road with the lorries and coaches. There is a pavement for some of the way but it is decayed and potholed and covered in sticks and twigs. I only know one way of cycling on busy roads and that is to keep a little distance from the kerb and pedal like the fury. Research has shown that cyclists who try to show respect to cars and lorries by cycling in the gutter get knocked off far more often than those who stand their ground a safe couple of feet from the causeway.
By the time I reach the Robin Hood public house I’m flying and also able to take the back road towards Chesterfield and leave the pantechnicons to fight it out amongst themselves. To be fair, the lorry drivers tend to show courtesy to cyclists, it’s the white van drivers who are far more of a nuisance. I suppose this is down to the very tight schedules they have to meet, and that they don’t have any particular training or test to pass to drive their vehicles. Drivers of over-sized cars and SUVs are also a particular danger to those on two wheels. So if you drive one of those and are reading this don’t take offence; just show a little more respect to people who have an equal right to use the highway and are not able to go any faster.
The back road is all my own. It rises up above the tree line. Fields never get a deep rich green up here and come flecked with yellows and browns. A herd of water buffalo would have been an unusual sight twenty years ago but we’re getting used to such things. Just before the summit I see a little owl.
The down slope goes under the delightful name of Puddingpie Hill and the freewheeling that begins here goes all the way to Chesterfield. I’m turning the pedals though. I’ve got my final wind and I’m turning my wheels in the style of Laurent Fignon. I feel very like the great French cyclist; strong legs, prominent spectacles giving an impression of great intellectual activity and a dreadful haircut. If I keep the revs high I can make my rendezvous with a couple of minutes to spare.
Down through Old Brampton with its well maintained gardens and general air of being quite happy for most people to pass on through. A sign says that the car park is for church use only. It seems a little un Christian; particularly on weekdays. It goes well with the numerous Neighbourhood Watch signs. I get an urge to get off and try every car door on the road just to watch the curtains twitch.
I choose the Newbold route into town as it allows me to pass a school where I spent a happy four years. It was on a split site and the one where I mostly taught is waste ground where once English, French and science was taught. It is desolate and spooky. The past is another country. I once gave an assembly here asking what it was that made a school. Was it the buildings or the ever changing list of staff and pupils who inhabit it? Now the people have gone and the buildings are no more and the school exists only in the memories of those for whom it once meant more than just a place to spend seven and a half hours every day.
The other building has gone too being replaced as part of the new school building project that has replaced ageing and decaying buildings with a new generation of schools that are already showing their age, are not quite fit for purpose and have somehow left huge sums of money owing to the construction companies who have grown rich from the scheme.
Chesterfield is an ancient town with a proud history of mining and engineering. It was a Chesterfield company that dug the channel tunnel. Railway engineer George Stephenson made the town his home in his later years. In the old days I used to like passing through the town on the train. The sight of the famous crooked spire on the church and the smell of the liquorice assorts factory made it stand out from other stations on the line. The spire is one of those sights that make you stop and look. The town reflects the county of Derbyshire in that it has a middle class, prosperous and pretty side and a working class, industrial side. Much of the industrial heritage has disappeared in recent years to be replaced with huge supermarkets of the food and comestible type or the DIY type or the bed and sofa type. The modern planners have little to congratulate themselves on. Their predecessors did a better job. The town centre is nicely laid out and the large and well proportioned market square hosts a lively market. I like Chesterfield a lot.
I power through the final roundabouts and park my bicycle under the stairs of the health club. We joined when it was popular with people looking for a moderate work-out, a gentle swim and a chat about your holidays. Lately it has become haunt of steroid and iron pumping twerps with more tattoos than brain cells. It’s quiet this afternoon though and we have the hot tub all to ourselves. It’s been a terrific journey but it’s wonderful to be back home again.
We just sit in the bubbling water talking, and then in the steam and the sauna. We swim a few lengths together and talk. This is simply the best part of the whole journey. Later T drives my bags back home and I pedal the last eight miles unburdened. It feels un-natural and at first the bike bucks and wobbles. I could have put it in the back of the car and driven home. It just seemed important to pedal every mile out and every mile back again. Three weeks one summer. Five countries and just over a thousand miles.