Will it hurt? Yes … The Fred Whitton Challenge

It was still dark when my alarm went off. I looked pensively out of the window. It was windy, but it wasn’t raining. It was going to be a good day for cycling. After a quick shower, the kettle went on and I ate my first (but by no means last) banana of the day. I filled water bottles, checked clothing, tyre pressure, helmet, energy bars, spare inner tubes, brakes, tyre pressure (for luck). Finally, it was almost 6am, time to head to the start.

A camelid on Newlands Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

A camelid on Newlands Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

Some 8 hours and 27 minutes later, exhausted but ecstatic, I crossed the finish line of the Fred Whitton Challenge. Along with two thousand other people of questionable sanity, I’d cycled 180 km (112 miles) on a loop around the English Lake District. A route that takes in nearly 4,000 metres of ascent and crosses all the major Lakeland passes. It’s a roll call of pain: Kirkstone, Honister, Newlands, Whinlatter, Hardknott, Wrynose.

The day started with an ascent of Kirkstone Pass. We were cycling into a strong wind, but this is one of the easier climbs on ‘The Fred’. Like most of the highest points on the route, there were people cheering, ringing cow bells and banging drums. The support was amazing, and cow bells are remarkably motivating. We wound our way along the shores of Ullswater, all thoughts of daffodils dancing in the breeze banished.

The route of the Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

The route of the Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

A camelid on Hardknott Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

A camelid on Hardknott Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

Hardknott Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

Hardknott Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

Hardknott Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

Hardknott Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

Through Keswick and Buttermere we went, stopping briefly at the 58 mile point to refill water bottles and eat more bananas. By now the weather was getting hot, and the landscapes were luminous under a bright sun. It would have been greatly enjoyable but for the fact that I was cycling 112 miles. We passed by Ennerdale and Calder Bridge (where there was a second feed station), each village filled with people cheering us on.

Then it was the moment each person doing ‘The Fred’ anticipates and (if you’re me) dreads: Eskdale. Here the road narrows as you come down the valley, ahead rises the fearsome sight of Hardknott Pass. I could see the colourful jerseys of cyclists snaking up the vertical-looking mountainside. The last time I was here, on a biology field trip, I witnessed a car getting stuck on one of the hairpin bends. I was not looking forward to what lay ahead.

The route of the Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

The route of the Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

Hardknott Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

Hardknott Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

Hardknott Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

Hardknott Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

The route of the Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

The route of the Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

The final 20 miles are perhaps the hardest of the route, and not just because you’ve already cycled 95 miles. It starts with Hardknott Pass, a relentless climb that reaches a gradient of 33%. I made it over the first brutally steep part of the climb, and tried to regain my breath and mental composure on the less severe mid-section. Looking ahead, I could see hairpin bends rising like a wall in front of me and felt despair.

I tried, but I reached a point where I couldn’t peddle anymore. The incline, too steep; my legs, burning. I got off and pushed the bike the last 200 metres. If that had been where the torment ended I’d have been delighted. The descent of Hardknott is the most terrifying thing I’ve done since climbing 6000m peaks in the Andes. My brakes were screaming as if in pain, the road so bumpy I was certain I would fly off the mountainside.

Kirkstone Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

Kirkstone Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

Kirkstone Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

Kirkstone Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

Reaching the bottom, I have rarely felt such relief. Relief that I was alive. I then made the mistake of looking ahead. As if to mock me, rising up a few miles further down the route was Wrynose Pass. My heart sank, but I was encouraged by the bonhomie of other cyclists, all with a ‘we’re all in this together’ attitude. I peddled on telling myself that only one more big effort was needed and then I was nearly home.

The ascent and descent of Wrynose was a ‘cathedral of pain’, but I made it. The last 10 miles flew past in a revery of optimism and exhaustion. Finally, the end was in sight, I applied the brakes one final time and my first ever cyclosportive was over. I’ve never been happier to stop moving in my entire life.

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For a bit of fun, check out the time lapse video (by a good friend) close to the finish. I appear at 4:00, blink and you’ll miss it.

A Vast Land Fit for Witches, a Pendle journey

On a sunny early summer’s day, the countryside and villages that surround Pendle Hill are beautiful. Green valleys almost glow in the light. I know from bitter experience that on a cold, wet day when the sun doesn’t make an appearance, the area can be far more foreboding. On those days it’s easy to understand why Pendle Hill has a reputation for being sinister. On my recent visit, I was lucky to have blue skies and bright sunlight.

This is an area soaked in history. It’s most famous for its association with the Pendle Witch Trials of 1612, when the villages that fall beneath Pendle Hill’s shadow were centre stage in a scandal that saw ten people sent to the gallows for witchcraft. The area has another history though, built on centuries of farming and cloth making. Ancient churches, medieval villages and Victorian-era mills are scattered across the landscape.

Pendle Hill, Pendle, Lancashire

Pendle Hill, Pendle, Lancashire

Countryside around Pendle Hill, Lancashire

Countryside around Pendle Hill, Lancashire

Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

Countryside around Pendle Hill, Lancashire

Countryside around Pendle Hill, Lancashire

This history and landscape lend themselves to folklore, and the people who live around here have a very strong sense of place. When I was in the Pendle Heritage Centre in Barrowford, I came across a folk song summing up that feeling:

Oh Pendle … oh Pendle, thou standest alone,
Twixt Burnley and Clitheroe, Whalley and Colne,
Where Hodder and Ribble’s fair waters do meet,
With Barley and Downham content at thy feet.

Oh Pendle, oh Pendle, majestic, sublime,
Thy praises will ring till the end of all time,
Thy beauty eternal, thy banner unfurled,
Thou dearest and grandest old hill in the world.

And when witches fly on a cold winter’s night,
You must not tell a soul, and you’ll bolt the door tight,
You’ll sit by the fireside and keep yourself warm,
Until once again you can walk in her arms.

Oh Pendle, Oh Pendle, o’er moorland and fell,
In glorious loveliness ever to dwell,
Through life’s fateful journey where e’er we may be,
We’ll cease in our labours and oft think of thee.

Countryside around Pendle Hill, Lancashire

Countryside around Pendle Hill, Lancashire

Countryside around Pendle Hill, Lancashire

Countryside around Pendle Hill, Lancashire

Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

Countryside around Pendle Hill, Lancashire

Countryside around Pendle Hill, Lancashire

This area was isolated from much of the rest of the world until the 19th century, one of the reasons why superstitions such as witchcraft held such a powerful influence on local communities. It was also one of the reasons why alternative Protestant religions flourished here. It was on Pendle Hill in 1652 that George Fox had a vision that led to the foundation of the Religious Society of Friends, better known as the Quakers.

Fox recounted the experience as, “When I was come to the top of this hill, I saw the sea bordering upon Lancashire, and from the top of this hill the Lord let me see in what places He had a great people to be gathered …” Following this tradition, the subversive preachings of the Baptists found fertile ground in the area and, later, John Wesley journeyed here, establishing Methodism in the region.

Countryside around Pendle Hill, Lancashire

Countryside around Pendle Hill, Lancashire

Downham, Pendle, Lancashire

Downham, Pendle, Lancashire

Downham, Pendle, Lancashire

Downham, Pendle, Lancashire

Downham, Pendle, Lancashire

Downham, Pendle, Lancashire

Downham, Pendle, Lancashire

Downham, Pendle, Lancashire

I left Barrowford behind and followed the Pendle Witches Trail, which passes along the exact route those accused of witchcraft took to Lancaster to be tried. Today, a mere 405 years after that fateful journey, the route is filled with picturesque villages and beautiful views. I passed through Roughlee and Newchurch, where I bought some Eccles cakes in a shop called ‘Witches Galore’, before reaching Barley which still has a Methodist church.

Further on I passed in front of Pendle Hill, and there were sweeping views of the valley below. Like Fox before me, I swear I could almost see the Irish Sea from this isolated spot.

Sawley Abbey, Pendle, Lancashire

Sawley Abbey, Pendle, Lancashire

Sawley Abbey, Pendle, Lancashire

Sawley Abbey, Pendle, Lancashire

Sawley Abbey, Pendle, Lancashire

Sawley Abbey, Pendle, Lancashire

I finally arrived in Chatburn, from here I’d planned to go to Clitheroe to visit its 800-year old castle. I didn’t have enough time on this trip, so headed in the other direction to make a quick stop at the remains of Sawley Abbey. Founded in 1147, the abbey played a role in the Pilgrimage of Grace, the widespread but short-lived uprising against Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries.

The monks of Sawley returned to the Abbey during the uprising, but once it was defeated they were forced to flee, not before the abbot had been executed though. It’s a tranquil spot that doesn’t seem to attract too many visitors. I had a wander around and then jumped back in the car and headed north towards the Lake District.

The Dark Corners of the Land, on the trail of the Pendle Witches

Four hundred years ago, amongst bewitching Lancashire countryside in the brooding shadow of Pendle Hill, one of the most extraordinary events in English history took place: the Pendle Witch Trials. The discovery, in 1612, of a circle of witches living in this remote area of northern England proved to many that evil supernatural forces were at large. The resulting execution of ten innocent people is now regarded as a tragedy, but was pretty normal for the time.

The Pendle Witch Trials came during one of England’s most turbulent periods, a time of religious persecution and superstition. King James I came to the throne in 1603, inheriting a country recently converted to Protestantism and facing strong Catholic opposition. England simmered with religious divisions that threatened to boil over into outright rebellion.

Alice Nutter statue, Roughlee, Pendle, Lancashire

Alice Nutter statue, Roughlee, Pendle, Lancashire

The uncovering of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, an attempt by Catholic rebels to kill King James and ferment a country-wide uprising, led to hysteria about Papist plots. A wave of anti-Catholic persecution swept the country, Parliament introduced the Popish Recusants Act, punishing Catholics for their beliefs. An England consumed by fear and superstition was the setting for the Pendle Witch Trials.

Lancashire in the 17th century was an isolated place. Education was almost non-existent in remote villages, many of which had little communication with the outside world, and the area remained strongly Catholic. Many Jesuit priests were in the area to perform illegal religious services for the faithful. Amidst Lancashire’s wild landscapes, Catholicism and superstition thrived, and became entwined in the popular imagination.

Pendle Hill, Pendle, Lancashire

Pendle Hill, Pendle, Lancashire

Roughlee, Pendle, Lancashire

Roughlee, Pendle, Lancashire

Countryside around Pendle Hill, Lancashire

Countryside around Pendle Hill, Lancashire

Countryside around Pendle Hill, Lancashire

Countryside around Pendle Hill, Lancashire

This included the mind of King James, who firmly believed witchcraft and witches to be real. He wrote an influential book, Daemononlogie, and oversaw the trial and execution of hundreds of people for witchcraft. The 1604 Witchcraft Act imposed the death penalty “for making a covenant with an evil spirit, using a corpse for magic, hurting life or limb, procuring love, or injuring cattle by means of charms”.

Previously, society accepted ‘wise women’ or ‘traditional healers’ who cast spells for good and bad. These mostly poor single mothers or widows lived in many communities. Now, under King James, all witchcraft was assumed to be evil. Worse though, and with profound consequences for those accused in Pendle, was the belief that witches never acted alone. Where one witch was found, there would be many others.

Pendle Hill, Pendle, Lancashire

Pendle Hill, Pendle, Lancashire

Pub sign, Barrowford, Pendle, Lancashire

Pub sign, Barrowford, Pendle, Lancashire

Countryside around Pendle Hill, Lancashire

Countryside around Pendle Hill, Lancashire

In the villages near Pendle Hill, two families of ‘witches’, the Demdikes and Chattox, survived by begging, stealing and providing cures to local villagers. The unravelling of their lives started when Alison Devices of the Demdike clan met John Law, a peddler from Halifax. She demanded he give her some pins for a spell. He refused, she ‘cursed’ him. Bizarrely, he immediately fell to the floor paralysed, probably from a stroke.

Witchcraft was assumed and Roger Nowell the local magistrate was informed. A zealous man keen to impress the government of King James, Nowell cast his net wide. He quickly extracted confessions from barely literate peasants and had nineteen people arrested to await trial in Lancaster Castle – a trial at which they were not allowed to defend themselves.

Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

Witch, Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

Witch, Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

St. Mary's Church, Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

St. Mary’s Church, Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

Graveyard in St. Mary's Church, Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

Graveyard in St. Mary’s Church, Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

Amid accusations of murder, causing madness, cursing cattle and bewitching horses, clay models of people and human teeth stolen from graves at St. Mary’s Church in the village of Newchurch were discovered. More damning, a meeting of the families at a place called Malkin Tower was portrayed as a Witches Sabbath. Some confessed to meeting the Devil in a place called Faugh’s Quarry.

What is surprising about all of this, is that those accused seemed convinced of their powers, and even exaggerated them to the authorities. They openly confessed to all manner of things guaranteed to get you hanged in the 17th century. In total, ten people were put to death for witchcraft, one other died in prison. They were hanged on a bleak moor outside of Lancaster. Today, it’s a children’s playground.

Graveyard in St. Mary's Church, Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

Graveyard in St. Mary’s Church, Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

'Eye of God', St. Mary's Church, Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

‘Eye of God’, St. Mary’s Church, Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

Pendle Heritage Centre, Barrowford, Lancashire

Pendle Heritage Centre, Barrowford, Lancashire

Contemporary report of Pendle Witch trials, Lancashire

Contemporary report of Pendle Witch trials, Lancashire

Faugh's Quarry where the Devil appeared, Pendle, Lancashire

Faugh’s Quarry where the Devil appeared, Pendle, Lancashire

It’s rumoured that the body of one ‘witch’, Alice Nutter, was returned to Pendle and buried in St. Mary’s Church in what is now called the ‘Witches Grave’. Alice was an oddity amongst the accused. She was from a well-to-do family and never spoke at her trial. It seems likely that she was hiding the fact that she had been attending secret Catholic services, and died condemned as a witch to protect that secret.

There is a statue of this innocent woman in the village of Roughlee, which now forms part of a ‘Pendle Witches Route’. In Barrowford, the route’s start point, the Pendle Heritage Centre does a good job of explaining the story. I visited a number of places associated with the witch trials including Newchurch village, home to St. Mary’s and close to sites such as Faugh’s Quarry, where the Devil is alleged to have been seen.

St. Mary’s Church tower has an ‘Eye of God’ to ward off evil spirits. These symbols were often found in people’s homes, but seeing one on a church is a reminder of the power of superstition.

On the trail of the Lord Protector in Ely

Seen from a distance across the Cambridgeshire fens, Ely sits proudly on a small hill under a vast sky. The fenland landscape around Ely is as flat as it gets in England, most of the surrounding area is no more than a few metres above sea level. There are many similarities with the Netherlands, from where I’d just arrived, including dyke building and the historic use of windmills to drain the land for agriculture.

Several centuries ago this entire area would have been marshland, and Ely itself was once an island, said to get its name from the eels that were caught in the surrounding rivers and marsh. Ely’s existence is owed to the fact that it sits on a chalk outcrop that raises it above the waterline. Sitting on the very highest point in this low-lying region, the Cathedral dominates the skyline and can be seen from miles away.

Ely, Cambridgeshire

Ely, Cambridgeshire

Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire

The size and grandeur of the cathedral seems disproportionate to the size of the city – it’s home to only 20,000 people – and, at heart, Ely is a sleepy market town. Albeit, one with a long and fascinating history. While it has an attractive historic centre, there isn’t a great deal to see, but it makes for an interesting half-day of exploration. I decided, as if there were a choice, to head first to the cathedral.

This area was quite isolated until the fens were drained, but that isolation attracted religious communities. It was St. Etheldreda, a Saxon princess, who first founded an abbey in Ely in 673AD. Over the next 1,344 years, the original abbey was destroyed and rebuilt, then built upon further until the current building was begun in 1083 AD.

Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire

The nave, Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire

The nave, Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire

The nave, Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire

The nave, Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire

The Lantern, Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire

The Lantern, Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire

The Lantern, Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire

The Lantern, Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire

It’s fair to say that Ely cathedral is magnificent inside and out. The vast interior space comes as quite a shock (as does the entrance fee of £8). It’s an extraordinarily beautiful building though, particularly the truly unique ‘lantern’ tower and the painted wooden ceiling of the nave. I met a trainee volunteer guide who gave me a potted history, and after an hour or so I found my way outside through the galilee porch to Palace Green.

Ely’s star attraction is definitely the cathedral, but I’d come here for a different reason. I was on the trail of devout Calvinist, renowned statesman, fiery orator, feared general, Governor of Ely and Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland, Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell is a divisive historical figure, particularly if you’re Irish, but also one of the most misrepresented.

Ely Cathedral and Palace Green, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Ely Cathedral and Palace Green, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Ely, Cambridgeshire

Ely, Cambridgeshire

Ely, Cambridgeshire

Ely, Cambridgeshire

Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Crowmell was born in nearby Huntingdon. He lived in Ely between 1636 and 1647, although as a Member of Parliament and a commander in the Parliamentary army, he was often away for prolonged periods of time. The house he lived in during that time is now a museum telling the story of his life, the interior rooms recreated to reflect the house Cromwell himself would have known.

It’s quite a small museum, and it doesn’t take long to go around it, but it does offer insights into the man behind the myth. The Cromwell passed down by history is a stern religious man, a humourless Puritan, a cruel tyrant responsible for the murder of a King. While his actions in Ireland, especially at Drogheda, stain his reputation, it turns out that he was far from humourless, enjoyed a drink, smoked, and was a devoted husband and family man.

Oliver Cromwell's house, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Oliver Cromwell’s house, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Oliver Cromwell's house, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Oliver Cromwell’s house, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Oliver Cromwell's house, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Oliver Cromwell’s house, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Oliver Cromwell's house, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Oliver Cromwell’s house, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Oliver Cromwell's house, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Oliver Cromwell’s house, Ely, Cambridgeshire

I left the museum and went on a walk through the lovely Cherry Hill Park towards the River Great Ouse. As the sun broke through the cloud, the views back towards the cathedral were beautiful. Ely is certainly an attractive town and I wish I’d had time to explore a bit further. After a late lunch in a cafe near the river, I set off again on the long journey towards the Lake District.

Ely, Cambridgeshire

Ely, Cambridgeshire

Palace Green, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Palace Green, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Cannon on Palace Green, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Cannon on Palace Green, Ely, Cambridgeshire

River Great Ouse, Ely, Cambridgeshire

River Great Ouse, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Constable country, Flatford Mill and the River Stour

The area around Flatford Mill, Dedham and East Bergholt in Suffolk is synonymous with the works of John Constable. This is where Constable grew up, his family owned Flatford Mill, he went to school in Dedham and East Bergholt is his birthplace, site of his family home and first studio. All these places, dotted close together along the Stour valley, provided untold inspiration for Constable’s work.

His most instantly recognisable paintings from this area – The Haywain, Flatford Mill (Scene on a Navigable River), The Mill Stream – are part of a series painted within a few hundred yards of each other. Strange to think then that, although familiar with his work, I had absolutely no idea where any of these masterpieces were painted.

John Constable, The Hay Wain (courtesy of the National Gallery)

John Constable, The Hay Wain (courtesy of the National Gallery)

Willy Lott's House, Suffolk

Willy Lott’s House, Suffolk

Flatford Mill, Suffolk

Flatford Mill, Suffolk

I would still be ignorant of this but for the fact that I was travelling by ferry to Harwich, before driving to the Lake District. On the map was a symbol for ‘place of interest’. That ‘place’ was Flatford Mill, and since the ferry arrived early in the morning I thought I’d spend the day exploring some places along my route. An early morning stroll on the banks of the River Stour seemed like a good introduction to Constable Country.

So famous were Constable’s paintings of the area, it became known as Constable Country during his lifetime. Constable heard this himself from a fellow passenger during a stagecoach journey. He recorded the incident in a letter: “… one of them remarked to me – on my saying it was beautiful – “yes sir, this is Constable’s Country!” I then told him who I was lest he should spoil it.”

Flatford Mill, Suffolk

Flatford Mill, Suffolk

Flatford Mill, Suffolk

Flatford Mill, Suffolk

Flatford Mill, Suffolk

Flatford Mill, Suffolk

Willy Lott's House, Suffolk

Willy Lott’s House, Suffolk

I arrived at Flatford car park (owned by the National Trust) so early that I qualified for a reduced rate ticket. Walking in the direction of the Stour, the sun was struggling to emerge from behind a blanket of white cloud. As if on cue, as I stood admiring Flatford Mill and Willy Lott’s House, the sun illuminated the entire scene. It was beautiful, the buildings radiating colour as they were reflected in the water.

None of these buildings are open to the public, so a visit is restricted to viewing them from the outside. I spent a little time drinking in the view before setting off past Bridge Cottage on a walk along the banks of the River Stour to Dedham. It was a peaceful morning and I strolled in isolation through a quintessentially bucolic English country scene.

Stour River Valley, Suffolk

Stour River Valley, Suffolk

Bridge House, Stour valley, Suffolk

Bridge House, Stour valley, Suffolk

Stour River Valley, Suffolk

Stour River Valley, Suffolk

Stour River Valley, Suffolk

Stour River Valley, Suffolk

Stour River Valley, Suffolk

Stour River Valley, Suffolk

Arriving in the small hamlet of Dedham was like arriving in a major city after the river walk. I wandered around the place where Constable had gone to school just as it was coming to life. Shops were opening, people were heading to work and the grass cutter was at work in the churchyard. Dedham has another claim to fame, as a hotbed of nonconformist religious zeal in the late 16th century.

Members of the Dedham Classis, a Presbyterian group that opposed the established church, were persecuted in England. Like many other religious radicals, many of them left the country to build a new life in the United States where they established a settlement in Massachusetts called, with great originality, Dedham. The US version is famous for having the oldest surviving timber-framed house in the country.

Dedham, Stour valley, Suffolk

Dedham, Stour valley, Suffolk

Dedham, Stour valley, Suffolk

Dedham, Stour valley, Suffolk

Dedham, Stour valley, Suffolk

Dedham, Stour valley, Suffolk

Dedham, Stour valley, Suffolk

Dedham, Stour valley, Suffolk

I found a footpath that took me from Dedham to East Bergholt, where the site of Constable’s first studio and family home are located. Neither building is the original, and the one that replaced his family home is an ugly example of modern British house building. I bought some breakfast in the local bakery and headed back to the car for the next part of my trip … to Ely.

Site of Constable's first studio, East Bergholt, Suffolk

Site of Constable’s first studio, East Bergholt, Suffolk

Site of Constable's family home, East Bergholt, Suffolk

Site of Constable’s family home, East Bergholt, Suffolk

Street art in London’s East End

Attitudes to street art seem to be changing. I was taking a photo of some wall art in an alleyway just off Hoxton Street in Hackney when an old woman, carrying her shopping into a nearby housing estate, walked past. “Lovely init,” she said in a Cockney accent, “a nice bit of graffiti for a change.” We stood together, two amateur art critics, admiring a strange supernatural-themed piece of art for a moment. “Not my cup of tea”, I said, “but it brightens things up.”

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

We went our separate ways, and I walked towards Shoreditch High Street and Brick Lane. This area has changed dramatically over the last few years, and now hosts more painfully trendy, upmarket bars, restaurants and private members clubs than you can shake a stick at. Prices have shot up and the demographics of the area have changed accordingly. It’s still a haunt for street artists though, and the area’s walls provide a rich canvass for expression.

It’s an area that has had a long association with street art. When I lived in the area seventeen years ago it was home to numerous Banksy artworks, including a dribbled white line of paint along Curtain Road that led into an alleyway where a cocaine snorting policeman was painted on a wall. More famous were Banksy’s acid house policemen on the railway bridge over Old Street.

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Like all of life’s transient pleasures, both vanished, removed by Hackney Council. You don’t see so many Banksy pieces any more, his fame has driven up their value and many have been torn from walls and sold. You do see a diverse range of other street artists though, and they have lent the area a new dynamism. So much so, that you’re fairly likely to bump into walking tours taking people around the area’s street art highlights.

Street art in Hackney was always complemented by commercial art. Hoxton Square was home to Jay Joplin’s White Cube gallery, which did much to encourage an infamous crop of Young British Artists like Tracey Emin, Gilbert & George, Anthony Gormley and Damien Hirst. The area is still home to plenty of independent art galleries, but rising property prices have pushed many young artists out of the area.

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Hoxton Street, Shoreditch, London

Hoxton Street, Shoreditch, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

On Great Eastern Street, hoardings around building works had been turned into a temporary canvas. I took a few photos and noticed a security guard walking towards me. I thought I might be in trouble (some ridiculous companies report photographers to the police, or demand photos be deleted because of terrorism fears). It transpired that he just wanted a chat. He said the graffiti changed most nights, and thought the painting of a rabbit-person was the only interesting piece.

Later, in the streets surrounding Brick Lane, I came across a feast of ever-changing art. I bumped into a fellow street art aficionado, who turned out to be a lecturer at a Tel Aviv university. We compared notes from around the world, and agreed this area of London was pretty special. I made my way back along Brick Lane and, my day of street art spotting over, went to get a real ale in one of the area’s nicest pubs, The Carpenter’s Arms.

Caught in the act, Street art, East End, London

Caught in the act, Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Back in the hood, a walk through London’s East End

It’s been nearly three years since I was last in London, a city I lived in for more than a decade. In a place that never stands still three years is a long time, and I was eagerly anticipating exploring some of my old haunts to see what had changed. Shoreditch, where I’d lived for all those years, was my destination, and I felt a thrill of excitement as I walked past a growing community of house boats along the canal between Islington and Hackney.

Hoxton Street, Shoreditch, London

Hoxton Street, Shoreditch, London

Goat statue, City of London, London

Goat statue, City of London, London

Hoxton Square, London

Hoxton Square, London

If one thing is certain in an uncertain world, it is that Shoreditch would be both familiar and alien at the same time. In the decade I lived here the area changed dramatically, but managed to retain its distinctive character. It’s location close to the financial heart of the City, and its growing reputation as London’s ‘silicon valley’, has seen a rapid new wave of gentrification – most obvious in the proliferation of trendy coffee shops, and a preponderance of men with well groomed beards and moustaches.

Despite that, and much to my relief, it still seems to have its rough edges. Not every traditional East End pub has been turned into a moustache-friendly bistro (although there aren’t many ‘boozers’ left); there are plenty of painfully trendy cycling shops that double as boutique coffee houses, but there are still shops selling bizarre collections of secondhand electronics; and thanks to a large amount of social housing, not everyone in the local community has been forced out by rising house prices.

Firmly rooted in the historic East End of London, Shoreditch is famously mentioned in the nursery rhyme, Oranges and Lemons. In the 16th and 17th centuries, its location outside the City of London allowed industries that weren’t permitted inside the city to flourish in the area. Dozens of trades existed here, specialising in interior design- and clothing-related trades: tanners, cloth makers, rope makers, saddle makers, varnish manufacturers, furniture makers and haberdashers.

The area was also famous for ‘nightlife’ – it still is. The first Elizabethan theatres were built here. Shakespeare performed as an actor in a theatre on Curtain Road, and many of his plays were produced in the area. Where there were theatres, there were also ne’er-do-wells. Shoreditch gained a reputation for its dissolute and bawdy ways – not to mention high crime rate. Playwright, Ben Jonson, killed a man outside a notorious Shoreditch pub in 1598.

Recycling truck, Hoxton, London

Recycling truck, Hoxton, London

Street art, Shoreditch, London

Street art, Shoreditch, London

Hoxton Street, Shoreditch, London

Hoxton Street, Shoreditch, London

Street Art, Shoreditch, London

Street Art, Shoreditch, London

Number art, City of London, London

Number art, City of London, London

This heady mix of cultures attracted subversives. In the 18th and 19th centuries it was home to non-conformist religious groups, and was a hotbed of dissent. The arrival of the Industrial Revolution simply cemented its reputation for poverty and radicalism. Tightly packed with people living in slum conditions, it’s not hard to imagine the area seething with social and political injustice – and it’s no surprise that Charles Dickens frequently visited the area for inspiration for his novels.

All the slums and industry might have gone today, but at its core Shoreditch remains true to its tradition as a centre of dissent harbouring sub-cultures. The area is still a melting pot of communities and cultures. There are still seedy drinking dens with live performances ranging from up-and-coming bands to burlesque; tattoo parlours flourish; galleries showcase exciting new collections. It must be one of the most diverse areas in London.

A Girl's Best Friend ... Brick Lane, London

A Girl’s Best Friend … Brick Lane, London

Bagel shop, Brick Lane, London

Bagel shop, Brick Lane, London

Brick Lane, London

Brick Lane, London

Brick Lane, London

Brick Lane, London

Brick Lane, London

Brick Lane, London

Shoreditch is just a short walk from Brick Lane, traditionally an East End immigrant Jewish community but now home of a sizeable Bangladeshi community – and also London’s finest curry houses. The area was made famous by Monica Ali’s novel (later film), Brick Lane. I wandered down here because it’s a fascinating area, has some great independent shops, pubs with real ale and good food, and is home to one of the finest bagel shops in London.

My delicious salt beef bagel, eaten with pickles standing at a counter overlooking the street, tasted like a little piece of home. Awakening from my nostalgic daydream, I set off to hunt out some street art. This one of London’s best and most creative areas for street art … but more of that later.

Dutch springtime, a festival of flowers

Just south of Leiden lies one of the prime flower and bulb growing regions in the Netherlands. It’s an area filled with daffodils, hyacinths, irises and the most famous of all, tulips. If you’re lucky enough to fly over this region when your plane comes in to land at Schiphol Airport, it looks like a giant patchwork quilt of brilliant reds, purples, pinks, yellows, oranges and whites. It’s a magnificent sight, and one so famous that it draws people from around the world to see it.

Flower fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Flower fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Flower fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Flower fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

It’s equally impressive seen from the seat of a bicycle as you travel from village to village through the region. Over the last few weeks I’ve been regularly cycling through this area as part of my training for a cycling sportive. It’s been lovely to cycle through the flower fields, passing vibrant blocks of colour as different types of flowers arrive and then disappear only to be replaced by another variety.

There’s something appropriate about the arrival of the flowers, a multicoloured marker of the end of winter and the onset of summer – a welcome explosion of vibrant colour after a long winter of grey skies and brown fields. The splash of colour lasts only a few weeks, during which millions of flowers are cut and exported around the world. Surprisingly, many flowers are not sold, but simply discarded in favour of harvesting the bulbs.

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

These days, flowers and bulbs account for a significant portion of Dutch agricultural exports. To put that into context, Dutch flower, bulb and other plant exports make up around two-thirds of total global exports. Not bad for a country with a tiny amount of agricultural land, most of which is below sea level. It’s a trade that has transformed the Dutch landscape, and although you get flowers year-round, April is ‘Peak Flower’.

It makes for quite an unusual tourist experience. Thousands of people flood into countryside which, for the rest of the year, is completely devoid of tourism. It’s an entirely new form of ‘tulip mania’, although these days tulips don’t cost the same as a house in Amsterdam. As you cycle around you can spot people crouching amongst the flower fields having photos taken, while nearby farmers are spraying, harvesting or checking their flowers.

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Flower fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Flower fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Flower fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Flower fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Many tourists visit the (admittedly extraordinary) Keukenhof gardens, which are home to over 7 million flowers. Keukenhof tends to get extremely busy, and a more relaxed, interesting and free way of getting to see the flowers and the communities that grow them, is to hop on a bike and meander between this region’s villages. If you’re lucky, you may come across flower-related festivals taking place, or flower mosaics that are entered into local competitions.

On a good day, and the weather at this time of year can be very hit-and-miss, the fields are almost luminous, lending an other-worldly feel to the Dutch landscape. It’s an experience to which photographs don’t really do justice so, if you have the chance, it’s well worth making the effort to see the flowers up close and personal.

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Canal-side chic, a sunny day in beautiful Leiden

Leiden is one of my favourite Dutch cities, and one of the most energetic and vibrant in the Netherlands. Much of the vibrancy comes from the presence of Leiden University’s 23,000 students – in a city of only 122,000 people, they make their presence felt. On a late Spring day, when the sun shines and the cold winter temperatures finally give way to some warmth, the city really comes to life. Boats take to the canals, people gather in canal-side restaurants, and the streets fill with cyclists and walkers.

It’s easy to dismiss Leiden as a smaller, less touristy version of Amsterdam, but that is to underestimate its appeal. For a small city, it punches well above its weight, and has played an outsized role throughout Dutch history. This is a city that witnessed the birth of Rembrandt; was home to the Pilgrim Fathers before they sailed for New England in the Mayflower; was one of the earliest and most important printing centres in Europe; and the university played a major role in the development of modern medicine.

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

As you walk around town, it’s hard to miss the role the university still plays in city life. It’s one of the oldest and most prestigious in Europe, with a history stretching back to the 16th century. Its array of alumni is as diverse as 17th century French philosopher, René Descartes; 19th century President of the United States, John Quincy Adams; and 20th century genius, Albert Einstein. University buildings are clustered around the city centre.

The university was founded in 1575 to reward the city for withstanding the Siege of Leiden – the bleakest period in the town’s history. As the most economically valuable town in the southern Netherlands, Leiden’s decision to side with the Dutch rebellion against Spanish rule resulted in an all too predictable and brutal siege. The siege lasted over a year and caused famine and widespread suffering. The lifting of the siege on October 3rd, 1574, is still celebrated today.

The university’s illustrious history is matched by that of the city itself, which stretches back to around 50 AD and the Roman Empire. Today though, it is the extraordinary economic, cultural and artistic flourishing of the Dutch Golden Age that is the most striking feature of Leiden. This period of history is reflected in the picturesque canals lined with 17th and 18th century buildings, ancient churches, medieval alms houses and several surviving windmills.

We arrived in the morning and made our way to the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, a fabulous offshoot of Amsterdam’s world famous Rijksmuseum. The Leiden branch is home to one of the world’s most important collections from ancient Egypt, and has recently been reopened after being remodelled. We spent a couple of hours in the museum before walking through Leiden’s canal belt and settling down for lunch on the Oude Rijn canal.

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

The weather was so warm we decided to spend a bit more time strolling around the city. We popped into the Hortus Botanicus, one of the oldest botanical gardens in the world, and the place where tulips were first grown in Europe after being smuggled out of Turkey in the 16th century. Afterwards, we wandered through the Van der Werfpark, a popular green space that hides a tremendous tragedy.

Until 1807 Werfpark was all houses, but in January of that year a consignment of gunpowder exploded, killing at least 160 people, injuring thousands and destroying dozens of buildings. We passed by the magnificent Pieterskerk, and wove our way through the narrow surrounding streets before heading back to the train station – a satisfying day of exploration complete.

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Roman history on the beautiful Playa de Bolonia

The dunes behind the Playa de Bolonia hides one of southern Spain’s great surprises. Here, in an out of the way part of the Costa de la Luz, sits one of the most perfectly preserved Roman towns in Andalusia. Backed by green hills, it’s a dramatic sight, and gives the golden sands and aquamarine waters of this magnificent cove an even more dreamlike quality. I can think of worse places to build a town.

This may be the less popular Atlantic coast, but the beaches are both unspoilt and uncrowded, and the water is the same turquoise colour that you’d expect to find in the Caribbean. The wide arch of Playa de Bolonia stretches for over three kilometres, from a headland in the south to a huge and dramatic sand dune in the north. The cove is a beautiful sweep of unspoiled coastline that is worth exploration.

Playa de Bolonia, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Playa de Bolonia, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Playa de Bolonia, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Playa de Bolonia, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Playa de Bolonia, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Playa de Bolonia, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Playa de Bolonia, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Playa de Bolonia, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

We’d brought a picnic to have on the beach, but first we walked its length and climbed the dunes at the northern end to get fantastic views. There were a scattering of fishermen, some dog walkers and very few other people despite the glorious weather. We stopped for a drink in one of the pleasant beach bars after descending the dunes, and then plonked ourselves down to have our picnic.

This was the last day and our final stop on this road trip. In the morning we’d have to be back at Malaga airport to fly home. A day at Playa de Bolonia seemed like a perfect way to end the trip. After lunch we wandered over to the Baelo Claudia, the well preserved Roman town that was founded here in the second century BC, thanks to its strategic position for trade between North Africa across the Straights of Gibraltar.

Playa de Bolonia, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Playa de Bolonia, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Playa de Bolonia, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Playa de Bolonia, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Roman city of Baelo Claudio, Bolonia, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Roman city of Baelo Claudio, Bolonia, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Roman city of Baelo Claudio, Bolonia, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Roman city of Baelo Claudio, Bolonia, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

It became a wealthy city built on the trade in salted fish and the production of a liquid that fuelled the Roman Empire: garum. A pungent fermented fish sauce made with salted fish intestines that became liquid, garum was hugely popular in Ancient Rome. This smelly concoction was the condiment of choice across the Empire, and Baelo Cladio grew rich as a consequence.

Declining trade and a devastating earthquake saw the city abandoned in the 6th century, but its isolated position and relative obscurity have meant that what remains today is well preserved. It certainly makes for a striking sight sitting just off the beach with a backdrop of hills.

Zahara de los Atunes, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Zahara de los Atunes, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Zahara de los Atunes, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Zahara de los Atunes, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Zahara de los Atunes, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Zahara de los Atunes, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Zahara de los Atunes, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Zahara de los Atunes, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

We’d driven through those same hills to get here after we’d had an early morning walk on the famous Playa de Zahara de los Atunes. At over 6 kilometres in length the beach near the former fishing village of Zahara, stretches as far as the eye can see. There was little activity other than fishermen and dog walkers, and we walked with only the wind for company.

You can see a wind farm from the beach, but beachside development has been kept to a minimum. It’s a welcome result of planning laws that prevent developers from building high rise monstrosities. In summer there’s a lot of life, and nightlife, in the communities along the beach; out of season, it feels almost abandoned. If your idea of ‘beach’ is more ‘combing’ than ‘lounging’, then this stretch of the Costa de la Luz is well worth a visit.