YHA February: Hartington Hall Part One – The knacker’s yard.

February brought my second YHA trip, this time with my bike forum buddies – We’d arranged to meet up in Matlock to pass Marvin the Monkey to his next host, I was due a youth hostel visit, and there was one right next to where we needed to stay.

Now, to clarify matters – On the 1st of February, I passed my full bike test. After a year of complete devotion to working on this and driving myself to exhaustion, this was a big thing for me. So after passing the Mod 2 on the first try (Oh how I will miss the Gladius! Sweet, nippy, powerful little machine that will sit up and dance with barely more than a thought!) and saying a somewhat tearful goodbye to my instructor, I was elated and excited to get the EN500 out on the road. I rode home on the GZ, and in jealous protest at feeling like it was being replaced in my affections, it threw its brake light, putting itself out of action for the duration.

My first tasks as a fully-fledged Idiot were banal ones; Getting The EN to the garage for a brake service (The front caliper was bent and the hoses were pissing brake fluid), and taking Dearest’s VanVan up for an MOT. So both bikes went out, and both bikes came back, and I went over to Best Friend’s house on the trike as a pillion.

The EN is a very different beast to the Gladius, and clearly not even the same species as the docile, breathless GZ. Bringing it home from the bike office, it bucked and fishtailed and screamed, threatening to drop me on my feet or skip up the exhausts of the cars in front. After the first hundred miles on it though, I felt like it was mine-and-me, as a good bike should, somewhere between a deep friendship and being a limb. It’s strong, it accelerates inexorably with a gentle whirr of liquid-coolant and a hum of high-revving parallel-twin goodness, it’s comfortable and sturdy and gentle, now that I understand how to talk to it, with that reserve of high power sitting always a hair’s breadth away, ready to pull me out of danger or to let me relax a little when cruising at seventy instead of constantly shepherding an engine that’s right on its redline. I fell in love, all over again, excited to learn where the new machine would take me. So I took it for a real ride – Washburn, Summerbridge, Greenhowe, Skipton. Thankfully I had Best Friend with me on the trike as a support vehicle, since the problems appeared almost as soon as I went out. Eight miles out, I had a little power loss and then a sudden uncontrollable acceleration. I pulled over intoa pub car park, explained the problem, and then kept on going. A hundred yards outside of the pub, it ground to a complete halt. I flagged down a passing tourer, who raced ahead to catch up to the trike, and pointed him back up the hill to where I was, just out of sight.

Trike returned, and together we shepherded the EN into a sleepy housing estate. A few roadside diagnostics (Are the carbs drawing properly? Is the air filter intact and clean? Rev up and drop through the gears to check for stalling or racing, poddle around the estate a few times to see if it does it again) and we were satisfied to ride on thinking it was just a one-off incident. We rode up to The Sun at Washburn, for a delicious plate of chips and microshandy, and a lovely chat with all the other local dog owners and bikers, including a handful of One Percenters who were all delighted to see a pair of mad old vintage machines on the road enjoying the weather (The EN500 is 27, The Trike is 20, one is an icon and the other is increasingly scarce and cult). At this point, we deliberated; Do we carry on, or do we call it a day and go on. I looked out at the glorious cold sunlight with the hint of spring in the air and the smell of fresh grass and sheep, weighed up the chances of running into trouble, and said; “Yeah, let’s ride on”.

The leg of the journey up to Summerbridge was so fast and clear, it was like a dream. It was why we ride. Broad, twisty roads, golden-green fields full of young lambs springing into life, red kites hanging in the still air under a blue sky, every other machine on the road seeming to be a bike or a classic car, all driven impeccably. The bike lost power once, but then started up again with no real issue, so we agreed to turn in to the next pub (Our planned next rest point) to sort things out. We stopped at a pub on Greenhowe Hill, where I encountered another biker from the Homeland; An older gent on a 1200 Sportster who had lived most of his life half a mile from where I grew up. In the words of Best Friend; “It was lovely to see, that spark of recognition from both of you… Then the Geordie accents got thicker and thicker and faster and faster until all I could tell was that you were both happy and nostalgic. But I couldn’t understand a word.” For my part, I was so happy to have felt that kind of kinship again. I feel very much like a stranger in my own homeland a lot of the time, so it’s good to see that other Geordies still see the Tyne in my blood.

It was on the way out of the second pub that things got unfortunate. Passing Bedlam, there were a few more sudden accelerate-then-grind-to-a-halt moments, including on a steep downhill. And then they got more frequent. At each stop, I was increasingly morose, exhuasted, sore and demoralised, and without Best Friend’s help, I’d have almost certainly just dropped her and phoned for breakdown recovery. By the time we were back in the City, we couldn’t risk the ring-road because at every traffic light, every junction, every couple of seconds, the bike was stalling and refusing to restart, even with her enrichment circuit fully on, as if she was dead cold. In the end, I was having to launch her hard on the back wheel from every stop, since letting her revs drop meant she’d die on the spot and probably not restart. I locked her in for the night, climbed onto the pillion of the trike, and went back to Best Friend’s house for a carb clinic. We knew where the problem was going to sit, we just had to hash it out.

The next day, I want home, and the EN was collected in the garage’s van, which took her away with all the solemnity and urgency of an ambulance. A day later, they phoned back – Problem solved, her carb boots were loose and they’d put them back on. I came out, picked her up, got her back as far as the bottom of the valley, and the problem started again. I shepherded her home, the garage apologised, collected her again, and she’s remained there ever since.

The night before heading off to Hartington, I charged up the GZ’s battery and replaced his rear bulb. In the morning, ready to leave, I discovered that even with the battery allegedly charged, he wasn’t going anywhere. So, Dearest being Dearest, offered me the VanVan for the weekend, a bike that I adore and have always wanted to ride for more than just the odd pop to the garage. And I had, after all, MOTed it the week before, I had earnt the right to take it out over the Peaks and really violate it.

The VanVan got as far as the garage before the battery died. A quick perk with the jump leads from Best Friend’s car, and I was on my way South…

We should all wear fantastic red trousers and never be sad again.

This has been one of those downright fabulous week-and-a-bits. My pain levels have been high, I’ve been scraping a knee around the twisty corner of a serious anxiety problem, and I’ve been sleeping like a rat on a tilt-table, but it’s been a fantastic week.


I swam at my local baths, again, for the first time since November, and turned out two kilometres without really noticing it.

I went to the City bath, clocked in three 400m stretches at about five minutes each, in a 2.5-kilo total session, and spent so long in the sauna and steam rooms that I felt completely new when I came out.

I went to two sessions of the naturist swim, and was just completely relaxed and sociable.

I’ve been out for a  lazy run on the bike – Not going far, not getting far above 50mph, but doing it on the best of the twisties that my county has to offer, on a gorgeous spring-becoming-summer evening, with every hedgerow in blossom and bursting with fresh greenery. The hawthorn, particularly, is splendid this year, and after this morning’s rain (though the roads have dried nicely) its smell is hanging in the air as thick as steam. I absolutely love this kind of weather – Not too hot, not too dry, and the whole landscape feeling alive. I actually stopped to look at some extremely jolly sheep, and a lovely old piebald cob who was grazing in the wildflower-strewn field next to them. It’s been that kind of day.

My attempts at domesticating the local feral pigeons has resulted in a Flock – Chequer (A massive dark blue chequer who comes to the window five times a day), Blue Bar (A slightly smaller but not by far pale blue bar, who follows Chequer), Red (A small barless ash-red who avoids the other two), Big Red (A bigger, patchy, barred red who might be Red’s mate) and Big Blanc (A very dilute white-headed, crested red bar who only arrived this morning but Chequer keeps trying to chase away). I’ve also got an accidental twenty-kilo bag of racing pigeon feed for them, so that seems to be going down a treat.

And there’s been good news – my letter from Stanmore detailing Dr H’s assessment of me has arrived, and stuff to look forward to – My first ride on the Suzuki 650 is tomorrow.

My dissertation, which has basically been hanging over me like the sword of Damocles, is now just the toothpick of Damocles, since it’s nearly finished and just needs some gentle tidying-up in the form of a justification and some proofreading to be submitted.

Things are all looking up.


Find attached: Stanmore’s letter to me, and some cager’s attempt at “wit” that I found stuck under the pillion strap of my saddle today. Still not enough to make this week anything other than beautiful.




Another major win – If I can manage a win per week, I will be happy – was discovering the local naturist swim.

I’d intended to go back in November, where instead I broke my leg, and then had somehow been busy every time the session was on since.

Signing up was a bit like joining the Masons, or something – Not meant to say exactly when it is, or where, and specifically not meant to say who was there. Arriving, I said “One to swim, please!” and got the guilty-sounding reply of “The normal swim, or…”

I quickly confirmed that I did mean the naturist swim, and suddenly everyone was all smiles and welcome – I was led through to the poolside, introduced to everyone with a broad arm gesture, then generally got to swimming.

As ever, I was the fastest person in the water, and one of the youngest (Though there was a handful who were definitely younger than me, or about the same age), and it was generally lovely to feel warm water, and steam, and to be around other people for a short and defined period of time, having light-hearted, basically meaningless conversation. Everyone was slightly over-keen to engage in conversation, but they avoided the usual topics (Crippledom, tattoos) and instead I discovered that a huge number of the local naturists are also bikers (I knew that there was a big naturist-biker overlap, but it’d hadn’t occurred to me what that would mean in practise). Which was a delightful realisation. My complete inability to remember names means that all the bikers are now stored in my memory by their scoots, and all the non-bikers are stored by vaguely where they live. I’m sure I’ll get people’s names eventually, and they seem like generally the type of people that would forgive me for forgetting. I ended up nicknamed within about ten minutes of meeting him by an old gent who looked like a second world war flying ace, and was generally accepted by everyone there basically immediately.

It is basically true that, absent social clues like clothes, we all start being much nicer to each other. Or possibly just that the kind of people who go to naturist events are more prone to be nice to each other in the first place. I was (slightly awkwardly) hugged by a woman who was probably about my age, and who swapped numbers with me and who immediately wanted to be friends. I must admit, I was about as gleeful – We’d both admitted to not seeing people very often, being not-far-off-housebound, and generally finding it difficult to get into conversations. It was refreshing to have this just be “another fact” rather than a point of shame.

The bath itself is one of the late Victorian ones, with the massive skylight, wrought-iron galleries, and plumes of warm steam in the air, making the swim itself look a bit like an odd re-enactment of Jean-Léon Gérôme’s Harem Bath painting, complete with people showering in the background, small groups sitting chatting with their feet in the water, and (sadly) one person limping around in the foreground, being held up by one of their fellows, in this case with a dislocated hip. It took about ten minutes in the steam room to heat it up and put it back together, but other than that it was just a lovely evening out.

Definitely going back next time. It’s a short, pleasant ride away from home, at a convenient time, and with nice people. Plus, it’s exercise – After three months of no-swimming after three years of swimming at least three nights a week, I am feeling floppy and useless. Hopefully this will make me more mobile and fitter again, as well as giving me a designated time to go out, forcing me to interact with other humans, and getting me some very simple regular bike time.

All good. Hopefully, it’ll stay good.

A Skulk of Foxes

Last Sunday was an unconditional win.

Got up early, to find bright blue skies, dry roads, and a lovely chill in the air. This is the kind of riding weather that makes me feel frankly privileged to be out on the roads, and today’s roads were perfect – Not too full of traffic, and mostly mildly-twisty old Yorkshire town roads, up and down hills to the woods which were surprisingly easy to find.

I was going to a whittling workshop, ran by C, (met on Twitter, where he’s @brightaire) in one of the many bits of pleasant local woodland. I arrived to find half a dozen people camped near the model railway, with a good-sized campfire, a pile of freshly-sawn greenwood (ash), a selection of hatchets, billhooks, and whittling knives, and lots of tea.

After a quick talk about tool safety (Including the awful words “blood bubble” far too many times, and strict instructions to think about where your femoral artery is if you’re sitting and whittling over your lap) we were quickly taught the basics of whittling – How it was important to always split a log through the pith, the centre of the growth rings, since that was the weak point, then how to saw inwards to make stop-cuts, then to whittle in towards them, either away from yourself, or towards (as if peeling a turnip). This was all that we needed to get started on the project for the day – The aforementioned skulk of foxes.

Mine… I won’t say that mine turned out well (I managed to make one of six) but the action of actually carving made me really happy, and really enthusiastic about the idea of doing more whittling in future (Basically as soon as I’ve bought a small pull-saw and a curved scoop). There’s something very meditative about slowly revealing the shape that you want out of a solid piece of media – I’ve never done subtractive sculpting before; My medium has always been clay, where any over-deep carve can be corrected in a second by sticking a bit more on the top, but also which works a lot faster in-general, so you can’t just slowly decide what you’re doing as you cut down towards it. It was a very refreshing change, and a lovely change of pace. Plus, with this being a new activity, I didn’t feel like I was under so much pressure – I wasn’t comparing myself to my own pre-degeneration work, or the master sculptors that I’ve admired for years, I was just sitting in the forest, with a collection of nice people, and a few blocks of wood that I could turn into something pretty, with no particular pressure to be good at it. Exactly what I needed.

Definitely going to the next workshop, which will be pewter casting, at the start of March. Thoroughly reccommend it to anyone that’s even vaguely Local.

It is in our nature

Today I feel right.


I’ve fixed up the garden – Skipped out all of the muck, turned over the flowerbeds, potted up a rhododendron, planted rhubarb, filled two windowboxes and put two different types of mint in the big planter, along with finding the miniature hollies and making sure they’re all right.


Then I got to the work I wanted to do – Winterising the bike. I’ve sanded off all the rust, painted the exhaust with heatproof paint, spot-primed and re-painted all the ex-rusty bits of the frame, polished the chrome, waxed the coloured paintwork, replaced the epoxy on the crash bars, tightened up everything that needed tightening and WD-40d everything that needed WD-40ing. And I’ve arranged to borrow a garage off a neighbour so that it’d not left out in the rain overnight whilst I’m not riding it. It looks great – Not exactly like a new bike, but like the neatest rat in the village.


Finally, I’ve helped Dearest with the push bike – Took off the wheels, fitted new innertubes and tyres, sanded the rust (again!) primed the whole frame, and now just waiting for the primer to dry before putting on a nice coat of pillarbox red paint (Making us a household with one red pushbike, one red motorcycle and one red car).


My hands are filthy, there’s rust and primer and putty and engine grease and the unspeakable crap off the underside of a motorbike on them, and there’s soil and bits of tree bark under my nails. They look like my hands again.


It may be late in the year, but tatting is the second thing I’ve decided to try to learn from scratch this year.


Tatting, for the uninitiated, is the craft of making lace using a single thread and either a blunt needle or small leaf-shaped bobbins called shuttles. As far as anyone can tell, it sprung into existence in the early 1800s, and might have been at least partially based in the decorative knotwork done by sailors. Thinking of the women’s fashions of the time – Which took inspiration and gold lace and frogging from military uniforms – it wouldn’t surprise me if women who were already skilled in other forms of lacemaking would take up the motifs from the fancy knotwork they’d recieved as gifts, and work them into their own creations, using similar techniques. It was still common for women of all social classes to make their own clothes (And, apparently, at least for Royal Naval sailors to not only sew their own uniforms but also to embroider and embellish them as well) and one of the ways of staying near the forefront of fashion was to take magazines and descriptions from London, then to sew your own interpretations. As far as I’ve found, tatted lace seems to be mostly something that people made for themselves and for their loved ones, rather than being something that people bought or that was professionally manufactured.


Which is a fairly long tangent, but it’s basically the preamble to my point; Tatting is a tricky craft, it takes a lot of patience, my attempts so far have all ended after a few inches in a snarl of threads and guilty looking knots, but it’s something that takes no particular skill other than being co-ordinated and patient and willing to put up with a million frustrating mistakes. It’s also cheap – I’ve got started with a £1.50 set of tatting shuttles, and similar of coloured thread – and projects can range from a tiny ten-minute motif, all the way up to shawls or skirt drapes, via any amount of trimming, which can be as fancy or as austere as I can design.


So far, I’ve had a shot at needle tatting, which seems to be easier and faster going, but more limited in the designs it can produce in theory, and one at shuttle tatting, which has been more of a painful slog – Where a tiny mistake in needle-tatting can be fixed by just unravelling the stitches, a similar mistake in shuttle-tatting might go unnoticed until the end of the ring, then require every individual stitch to be carefully unpicked with the hook of the shuttle, and if they’re pulled too tight, they can just end up stuck.


Basically, I’ve produced a tableful of thread scraps, a few solitary rings, some tangled chains less than an inch long, and a single pink cherry-blossom. I love it. So far, it’s frustrating, but on the other hand it’s also like magic. Anything that makes something beautiful from very few ingredients or very few pieces of equipment is magic to me. Sewing isn’t magic; It’s obvious how a load of different fabrics and linings and thread and shears and steam and a huge mechanical device can make clothing, but something like french onion soup, made with just water, onions, oil and heat is magic, since the basic stuff is completely transmuted. And lacemaking has always fitted into that category for me – Just thread and something to manipulate it with, and the maker can make anything. Look at the three unique lacemaking traditions of Croatia – The naturalistic figures of plants and animals in  Lepoglava made by interlacing rows of bobbins, the traditional needlepoint Pag where motifs are passed down from generation to generation with little deviation, and Hvar lace, impossibly delicate, made only by the nuns of one abbey, from thread processed from the aloe plants in the gardens. All developed as beautiful pastimes for ordinary people, and over time imbued with cultural and religious signifigance.


I could go on at length about the meditative power of repetition – Mandalas, rosaries, mala – and about the sense of cheerful self-possession of wearing or using something that you’ve made, not just because you’ve made it, but because it’s genuinely more comfortable or practical or just more to your own taste than the shop-bought equivalent. If you’ve never experienced it, it’s worth seeking out for its own sake, above and beyond the other joys of learning to make clothes, or brew beer, or build furniture, or whatever random skill you decide to pick up.


So that’s kind of part of my resolution – Keep trying to learn new things, so that I’ve got more opportuninties to be proud of stuff, further down the line. When I started sewing, I was making stuff that barely fit and that needed internal pins and tacking to hang straight, and even then looked amateurish. By now, I’m a long way from perfect (and I look at the stuff that my occasional-teacher makes, and I am humbled), but I can look at the things I’ve made and compare them favourably to stuff that I’ve bought. I like making that kind of progress.


So, here’s to making little fripperies that’re neither use nor ornament, in the hopes that within the year they’ll be both.

The People’s Republic of Yorkshire

After the shower of bollocks that was yesterday, I decided that I deserved something nice today.

“Something nice” it turned out was a run up to Harrogate on the bike to buy buttons. I went for the straight shot on the way out, up the A61, which was beautiful – garlanded with copper beeches in autumn colours and with red kites hovering every few miles. Up nearer to harrogate, the trees thinned out a little, and there was ever more wildlife – Two cranes (or possibly herons) in-flight, a herd of deer, blissfully oblivious to the traffic, a hare darting along the grass verge. One of the lovely things about the bike, as opposed to a car (Which I am increasingly thinking of as roadcages), is the smell. Today, it was a mixture of autumn leaves, muckspreading, woodsmoke and curing bacon at nearly every farm, inn, or isolated cottage I passed, and, upon reaching Harrogate, coffee and baking cakes.

My first stop was a rather lovely independent wine shop where I asked for directions, and made a serious mental note to come back when I had more saddlebags and knew what I was buying.

I parked in Prince’s Square, after four circuits of the one way system (Really, Harrogate, you don’t need a one-way system), stuck the parking ticket to the handlebars with a fervent prayer that nobody would steal it, then ambled off to Duttons, wherein I spent enough money on buttons that it was frankly a bit shameful. On the other hand, I did get buttons for my upcoming red suit (Silver, with a red and green enamel heart design on them), my navy blue waistcoat (Square silver piercework ones, similar to the gold ones on my cream waistcoat), my grey double-breasted waistcoat (Fairly plain brass rope-twists) and a small bag of black concealed buttons for Best Friend. So I’m basically set for quite a long time, and don’t nee to buy any more, especially considering the plain fly-buttons and the extra silver piercework buttons that’re on their way from Ebay.

After that, I returned to Prince’s square, sat down outside a coffeeshop in the basement of an expensive tailors’ workshop from which I could see my bike, ordered a bucketful of frothy coffee, and phoned my grandparents. For context – My grandmother was a biker, and rode well into her sixties until her bike gave up the ghost, and she’s been really excited about me carrying on the family tradition (She was a biker, her son -my Uncle- was a biker, I believe her Dad was a biker, rumour was that his Dad was a despatch rider in the Great War…) since this generation so far lacked anyone taking up the mantle. She’s midway down the route of dementia now, but we can still have proper conversations about basically three topics – Dogs, motorbikes, and the Labour Party.

Whilst on the phone, I saw someone get within three inches of reversing into the front of my bike, so sadly the conversation was curtailed as I got up to hoick the bike out of the path of the reversing people-carrier. I then noticed that, if I wanted to get home before sunset, I’d have to get a bit of a move on.

Not willing to get too much of a move on, I got back on the A61 northbound, then turned onto the B6161 at Killinghall and took the long way home over the moors, where there was an impressive array of livestock, all looking rather picturesque under the low, pearly clouds and setting sun. I definitely spotted charolais, limousin, angus, belted galloway and holstein (or friesian) cattle, and cheviot, herdwick and what might well have been whitefaced woodland sheep, though all the whitefaced sheep breeds look really similar when viewed at sixty-odd miles an hour through a midgey-splattered visor.

That road has some exciting curves, and exciting hills, and occassionally both at the same time. Some of them I took in a knee-down-optimum-line-accelerate-through fashion, and some I slowed down to twenty and crawled through. I also found out that at much above a 16% hill, the Marauder really struggles to climb unless it’s in a low gear. And also that it really makes up for it’s lack of acceleration beyond forty by having huge amounts of torque at the bottom end. It’s just a lovely, responsive, happy little bike. And, for some reason, the speedometer sporadically stopped working for about fifteen miles in the middle, and there’s no way of knowing how many miles it’s really done, since the odometer skips both hundreds and thousands when it goes over a bump too fast.

On the other hand, I know that it’s done a hundred and fifty miles with me, seventy of them today.

Here’s to more nice little runs out.