In the belly of the beast


This one is for hard-core hub-gear fans – epicyclists? – only. It shows the dismantling of my hundred-year-old Sunbeam ‘Newill’ hub, which I did a few years ago. At the moment, the sequence is on Flickr as a set, and some of the shots are a bit dark, though if you blow them up, you can see most detail you might want. They are also labelled, so if you mouse over them you can identify the various components. I hope it may be of some technical interest to perhaps as many as three or four other people in the world.

As you will see from the captions, this is something of a mystery story: the gear slips in direct drive, which in theory should be impossible. Looking over it again, I find I had forgotten the extent of the work I had done on it, and the degree to which I had advanced my understanding.

Any of you who have ever done it will know that while dismantling and reassembling an epicyclic hub can afford a great deal of satisfaction (as long as you get it to work) doing it repeatedly eventually becomes tedious (there are no fewer than seven separate sets of ball bearings in the Newill hub, most of them tiny, to say nothing of six pawls and the little hair springs that actuate them) especially when you are trying to run down the cause of a fault that only becomes evident when the hub is in operation under load, on the bicycle – in other words, every time you put the wheel in place (no small task in itself, though a great deal easier on a Pedersen than a Sunbeam) your heart is high with hope – this time it will surely work! This, time, surely, you have eliminated the fault!

But no, you haven’t, and it doesn’t, but in the end you leave it in place and put up with it (it is an intermittent fault, after all, and you can get by on low gear and high for most purposes) because you cannot face yet another taking off and stripping down…

But now that the passage of time has deadened the pain, and in any case the Pedersen is hors de combat, awaiting a new saddle, I find that my curiosity is sufficiently piqued to give it another go – after all, for any mechanical mystery there must be an explanation – mustn’t there?

So I hope to repeat the exercise some time soon and photograph it better – watch this space. I shall certainly make use again of the original patent drawings as a guide, which I downloaded from the excellent European Patent Office website and printed off. You can view the patent document with drawings here : GB190515579A. Though it might seem daunting, I found it a great aid to understanding when actually working with the hub.

In the mean time, may I invite you to join me  –


How many gears does a man need?

(for the map of this route, see here)

This question was prompted by my ride to Elcho Castle on the Dream Roadster (I suppose it also has an echo of the Tolstoy short story ‘How much ground does a man need?’ which is well worth looking out, but I can’t find a link at present).


My love of the epicyclic hub had always been tempered by frustration at its fixed range of gears, meaning they could only be raised or lowered as a group. A tall gear for bowling along at speed means sacrificing hill-climbing power and vice versa. I took it as axiomatic that more gears were better till I got my first Sunbeam. This was a 1923 model, fitted with the ‘standard’ Sunbeam hub* giving gears of 56″, 73″ and 96″ – yet I could ride this bicycle up Stephen’s Brae in Inverness, a short but steep incline which had defeated me on other machines. Doubtless the geometry (it’s a 26″ frame) and the clean permanently-lubricated drive-train in its oil-bath helped, as did the fact that simply being on that bike made me feel happy, but it did make me question for the first time whether more gears were necessarily better.

So, bearing that in mind and after my experience on the Elcho Castle run, I resolved next day to make a trip on my other Sunbeam, from 1934, which has a Sturmey Archer K-type 3-speed hub.

But first I had to fix one of those niggling problems that can (when you are in the wrong mood) provide an excuse for not going out on a particular bike. The left-hand brake lever (which in usual Sunbeam practice, but unlike most other British bikes, operates the front brake) was able to slide sideways in its bearings, rendering the brake inoperative. Close inspection showed that there was a little grub screw which was intended to locate  the lever in a slot on the underside of the bearing, but it had sheared off, leaving the remnant in the lever. So I detached the lever and drilled it out (having tried to free it by other means, in the hope of preserving the thread in the hole) and solved the problem in brutal but effective fashion by inserting a small screw through the slot and jamming it into the hole in the lever.


I had no definite plan in mind, but I thought I might complete the journey to Almondbank which I had started but abandoned on the Dream Roadster shakedown trip. I duly set out and made a long diagonal across the South Inch, one of two broad expanses of green between which Perth lies,hence the old jest that it is the smallest town in the world because it lies between two inches. On the corner of Tay St. I paused for a picture outside the Fergusson Gallery:
The Fergusson Gallery is a splendid little place, located in the old Perth water works (hence the title above the door – ‘water by fire and water [i.e. steam] I draw’).  The upper part of it is said to be the oldest cast-iron building in the world. Despite the name, it is devoted as much to the works of Margaret MorrisJohn Duncan Fergusson‘s wife , an artist in her own right and a pioneer of modern dance. Well worth a visit.

From there, I went along Tay St, which runs by the river as its name suggests – along with much interesting street furniture and some fine sculpture, the most striking things are the heavy gates of the flood defences, set into a sturdy parapet wall which in my youth was just railings that you could get your head stuck in. The need for the flood defences becomes evident if you pause under the arch of the Old Bridge, where various high water marks are carved:

(click to view large and read the inscriptions)

This gives an idea of the normal water level, and allows you to imagine the sheer volume that must have been required to raise it to the flood-levels shown:

Bear in mind that for many of the floods, the bike would have been entirely submerged, and yet the path it is beside is at much the same level as the huge expanse of the North Inch that lies beyond it, though this has now been protected by raising mounds along the edge of the path.

The path runs some distance with river on one side and the green expanse of the Inch on the other, then turns and follows the Almond where it joins the Tay up past Woody Island. Though people call it the River Almond, that is a redundancy – Almond (which is a common river name in Scotland) means river, and is (I believe) cognate with ‘Avon’. This stretch of path is a pleasant one, particularly at this time of year, when everything is so green and lush.


My attention was caught by this tree, which had a wild rose growing up through it, right to the top – sadly, the pictures don’t do it justice: it was beautiful.



There is something very attractive about a narrow path between green banks, especially one that disappears round a bend some way ahead – it leads you on…


(The tag on my handlebars, by the way, is from the auction where I bought the bike, which happened to fall on my birthday. I wasn’t able to go and left an absentee bid. I was delighted to return and find I had won the Sunbeam, along with a little Lady’s Raleigh, part of the same lot. I’ve grown fond of the tag, for no particular reason, and have left it on)

Some way along, you come on this spectacular scene of erosion. The opposite bank is about twenty feet high, and at some recent time a large portion of it has slid into the river, bringing with it a couple of good-sized trees, which you can see in the foreground; the solitary rather bare and dead-looking tree that remains looks none too securely fixed.
If you click on the picture above and maximise it to the full, you will see that the top of the bank at the right hand side is riddled with little burrows, which are the nests of sand-martins.
These were diving and swooping at a great rate and in great numbers over the water, doubtless catching insects (or perhaps spiders – I heard recently (here, in fact, on the marvellous Tweet of the Day) that swifts’ diet is composed very largely of tiny spiders, which they catch in mid air – the spiders seemingly spin out a long thread of silk and the wind catches it and bears them away through the vast spaces of the upper air – which for them must be every bit as heroic as space -travel is for us, with rather fewer resources. Perhaps I should write a book with a spider hero evading ravenous giant swifts…) (though I do love swifts – my favourite bird I think – they give such an impression of the sheer joy of flight)
It’s striking that the tree in the left foreground, which is actually lying horizontal, its crown towards us, (having presumably started life much higher up the slope) is still so abundantly green, while its upright companion at the top looks very forlorn and dead. If you click on the picture below and enlarge it to the full, you will see a sand martin high up in the top right corner (‘the postage -stamp corner’ as footballer commentators of old used to term it, when describing where a shot went into the goal)
It’s moments like this on cycling trips that make you wish you had the skill of Frank Patterson, whose effortless line drawings capture so well the many and varied delights of cycling, especially in country lanes (galleries of his art here and here and here) :

And the Sunbeam does look rather well, does it not, for all its non-regulation red rims and showy cream Schwalbe Delta Cruiser tyres?
I’ll hazard a guess that this sad remnant has something to do with the Perth, Almond Valley and Methven Railway, which received Royal Assent in 1856, was closed to passengers in 1951 and to all trains in 1965, the direful year. Perthshire used to have a network of branchlines that must have been among the prettiest in the country, if you follow their routes on old maps:
Here we are approaching the weir that forms a reservoir to feed the Lade, a stream that was created over eight centuries ago to take water from the Almond through Perth, debouching in the Tay, to provide power for numerous mills, a project that proved eminently successful.

This is the sluice gate that controls the flow into the Lade:


And this is the barrage across the Almond which creates the reservoir to feed the Lade – the river flows through the narrow channel in the right middle ground, while the sluice gate is located below the left bottom corner:
and this is the rather humble beginning of the waterway that in many ways founded the fortune of the town:
If you look at the map of this route (and bring up the profiles by putting ‘elevation’ on ‘large’), you will see that there is a stiff climb out of the glen of the Almond on the North side, which starts a little before mile 7. This was the first real challenge on the run, the first posing of the question ‘how many gears does a man need?’ – and (though it cost me some exertion) the answer in this case was ‘three will suffice’ – I made it all the way up without having to dismount and push. A little after mile 7 there is one of those respites that are so important in cycling – you sweep down a fine short hill into Pitcairngreen, a pretty village that is more English than Scottish in appearance, with its large eponymous green in the centre. I was aware as I descended of a wonderful swathe of colour on my left, where there was a great bank of poppies –
I had already swept past them and reached the junction when its struck me that I was doing them a disservice – they merited a photograph at least, so I turned back and took some:



Which is why my bicycle is across the road, facing back the way I had come:
It was fortunate (though it did not seem so at the time) that I had no cash about my person, because I would undoubtedly have joined the people sitting outside the inn on the corner, enjoying their pints – and who knows how far I would have gone after that? More than likely I would have turned and headed home – after all, I was already further than my only specific notion of a destination, which was Almondbank. But instead I pressed on, satisfying my thirst with just the water I had in my saddlebag. A roadsign at a junction promised me 5½ miles to Bankfoot, which seemed a manageable distance, so I went for that. As you can see from the map, this is an undulating route, relieved by numerous downhill sections, though the general trend is steadily upward – ideal cycling, in other words – periods of sustained effort are rewarded by delightful freewheel stretches where you can catch your breath and admire the scenery. I realised as I went along that I was reversing part of the route I had followed some six years before, on my epic voyage from Inverness to Perth on my 1923 Sunbeam, which I will recount another time – though this picture posted on the Brooks website memorialises what was, literally, one of the high points of the journey.

When I came to Bankfoot – having used all my gears but without once having to push – I was delighted to find a Nisa local store in the Main Street which had a free cash machine – blessings upon them! Here is their Facebook Page. (There’s nothing like getting about under your own steam to make you appreciate local services). I bought an egg mayonnaise roll from them for my lunch. It tasted wonderful. And I felt so virtuous that I resisted the temptation of local hostelries and made do with water.

Unlike Pitcairngreen, Bankfoot is a classic Scottish ‘lang toon’ consisting mainly of houses strung out along a single main street. A little way beyond, I met my Waterloo –  a tiny settlement presumably so named in patriotic fervour after 1815. This is on the way out – another case of thinking, as I sped on may way,  ‘I really should take a picture of that’:


The profile on the map suggests a very stiff climb shortly after this, between mile 14 and 15, though oddly I have no recollection of it – doubtless I was revitalised by my egg mayonnaise roll and the knowledge that with money in my pocket I could potentially stop for a pint at the next available hostelry. What I do remember vividly was this, some distance further along the Murthly Road, a wonderful free display of beauty on the roadside, eclipsing even the fine poppies of Piutcairngreen, by virtue of their variety of colours:


It has been suggested to me that these might be opium poppies, papaver somniferum.
They are certainly beautiful and their beauty is enhanced by their being on the public roadside. To stop and enjoy things like this is one of the rewards of cycling.




As can be seen from the profiles on the map, this part of the route makes for pleasant easy cycling, being a long descent from mile 15 into the valley of the Tay, which is crossed, together with its tributary the Isla, between miles 21 and 22. Both crossings are by narrow bridges controlled by traffic lights, but there is room enough for a cyclist to stop and take pictures, as I did here on the Isla, looking upstream first:
then down, along its last reach before its confluence with the Tay, just around the bend:
Another Frank Patterson moment:
Beyond the bridge, I resisted the temptation to go left and take in the spectacle of the Meikleour Beech Hedge, a local wonder – it is an impressive sight to see, but not easy to capture well in a photograph. I had been before when I did a variant of this route in reverse on my 1923 Sunbeam a couple of years ago. Doubtless that run will find its way onto this site eventually, but in the meantime you can see it here. Instead I turned right along the A93, which in the other direction will take you to Braemar by the Devil’s Elbow (what’s left of it) and the Cairnwell, the highest main-road pass in Britain. But in the Perthward direction it’s a pleasant undulating cycle, with every climb compensated by a downhill stretch, it seems. For all that, I was glad to see this sign at a bend in the road, and shortly after pulled in to the  Strawberry Shop,  for a spot of afternoon tea (but without the tea). This is in the heart of Scotland’s finest soft-fruit growing district.
For now, raspberries and ice cream…   and some strawberries to take home for later:
The Strawberry Shop itself, with a polytunnel next to it – these have greatly extended the fruit-growing season in these parts.
Finally, on my way home, passing Scone racecourse on the eve of the Summer Solstice, I could not resist a picture of this rather premature advertisement – some sort of record, surely?

The Sunbeam has no mileometer, so the first thing I did on returning home was map my route on an excellent site of great utility. I was gratified to find it came out at 33.7668 miles – just as well I did not have the means to buy a pint in Pitcairngreen. And how many gears does a man need? On the evidence of this trip at least, three is sufficient.

*The  ‘standard’ Sunbeam hub succeeded the ‘stepped’ Newill hub about 1912. Its characteristic feature is that the wire is slack (lever full forward) in low gear, so that you have a better chance of getting home easily should the wire fail. It also has no ‘no-gear’ position (unlike later SA hubs) so there is no risk of a groin-crippling slip when ascending a hill.  The hub is in fact identical to the BSA 3-speed, itself a version of the first successful Sturmey Archer hub, designed by William Reilly, and later marketed as the X-type after Frank Bowden and Co had done Reilly an ill turn and swindled him out of his patents, a sorry tale well-documented in Tony Hadland‘s excellent book, The Sturmey Archer Story – now sadly out of print, it seems – I got mine from Old Bike Trader. (but it may still be available through the V-CC)

Saddle Strain – a cautionary tale

The aesthetics of saddles are curious: a visit to eBay shows that old saddles (often well past their prime) command a lot of interest – yet in an age where retro sells, the principal maker of leather saddles (Brooks) is only slowly reviving their classic heritage… chestnut brown leather looks so much better than plain black; oval embossed stamps than angular ones; keyhole slots than plain holes, triple-wrought springs than single strand…. or is that just me? (my wife and I have observed a curious phenomenon – as soon as we get a taste for something at our local supermarket, it vanishes off the shelves, never to be seen again. This is almost unfailing. Perhaps we just have odd tastes).

Anyway, with the building of the Dream Roadster, the question of a suitable saddle soon came up. My beau ideal is the Brooks B90/3 (my daughter and I have two of the last ever made) though I have a soft spot for the B66, but I don’t like grained leather and I prefer keyhole slots. As it happened, I had a never-used B90/3 front spring and frame attachment (much like this, if not identical) plus various odds and ends of old saddles, including a nice Middlemores cover, long since detached from its other components:


One feature I rather liked was the integral eyelets for saddle-bag straps, with metal reinforcements. I had married it to spare B66 rear springs and undercarriage, though you may notice that the gap between the side-rails that takes the saddle clamp is rather wide… mark that.


The side stamp too was pleasing – worn yet retaining detail: Middlemores of Coventry – model B185,  think.


And the cover was in good condition,with elegant ventilation slots
(all this took place around Bloomsday, 16th June, which explains the copy of ‘Ulysses’ used as a stand)


from rear 3/4 it looked rather well… I had fitted the Middlemores nose-piece into the narrow gap in the Brooks spring by dint of some judicious hacksaw-work, filing, and hacking off bits of leather – a first-class bodge, in other words.


The  original Middlemores saddle had a conventional coil spring at the front (much like a Brooks B73) so that the nose projected beyond it, and was covered with a rather pretty extension to the cover, like a little leather trunk that curled down and round it. This was too wide to fit in the slot in the Brooks spring, and rather than cut it off, I thought to make a feature of it by whipping it to the spring with a spare bit of leather lace.


I am not much of a man for the old Fifty Shades, but I do think a little whipping in the right place looks rather well… (but you can already see the danger signs – look at the strain on that side nose rivet…)


..and here too, at the flare in the flank. The simple act of bolting the top part to the lower frame had put the steel side-rails under a fair bit of tension, and I think you can see that the strain is beginning to tell on the cover

as is particularly evident here – this tear developed considerably as the saddle was assembled, but the final straw was fitting the seat-clamp – this drew the side-rails in much closer and greatly increased the tension, and by the time I had actually fitted the saddle to the bike it had begun to give way at the nose – it plainly would not stand the weight of a rider, so I reluctantly discarded it and substituted the B90/3 from the 1923 Royal Sunbeam.

Yet we learn more from failure than success: I feel I now have a better understanding of the powerful strains and stresses exerted by the saddle chassis on the cover, and how they are exacerbated by the process of assembly and tightening.

‘Hence, loathèd melancholy’ – an evening ride to Elcho Castle & environs

(for the map of this ride, see here)

I am prone to melancholy, usually accompanied by inertia and lethargy, a strong disinclination to do anything. Yet I know that physical activity – a walk or a cycle run – is a sovereign specific against this ailment. Yet you have to force yourself, for all that, and it helps to remember, almost as an article of faith, that it is always worth the effort.

It had been a beautiful day, yet my mood was bleak, lethargic, at one remove from the world (I sometimes think that my mind is like a rambling house in which I get lost: I have the feeling that the place I want to be is close at hand, yet I cannot find the way there). So I made a resolution: I would go out on my bike, the Dream Roadster. The shakedown run had proved satisfactory: what was stopping me?

Nothing, save my own causeless disinclination.

So I forced myself to make a plan, to have something specific to execute: I would go to Elcho Castle, down on the banks of the Tay, a place I had never been, though it was close at hand. I knew it was on a spur off a manageable circular route round Moncreiffe Hill that would bring me back by Bridge of Earn – Pauline and I had walked it a few years back, in training for her Moonwalk. All I had to do was get myself downstairs – gravity would help me there – fetch out the bike, and be on my way.

How many miles would I go? The Sustrans map (‘The Salmon Run‘) suggested 13, but that was coming from the centre of town:


The climb up the Edinburgh Road offers some fine prospects to the North, looking over Perth to the Grampian hills beyond:

big sky looking North over Perth

big sky looking North over Perth

nw vista from Perth

a little more to the north-west

How big summer evening skies seem in Scotland!

hills n of Perth

what are those blue remembered hills?

(Housman – who wrote about ‘those blue remembered hills‘ in ‘A Shropshire lad’ was a terrible melancholic, but he knew it, and could laugh at himself – he enjoyed this parody of his famous work)

The view to the East is nearer, but also very fine – Kinnoull Hill

with its beetling cliffs, which Lord Grey of Kinfauns, seeing a resemblance to those on the Rhine, thought would be adorned by the addition of a picturesque ruined tower, so he built one there in 1829 – you can see it perched on the farther cliff to the right:


though the classic view is this one (from the geograph project) by Val Vannet:

Kinnoull Hill tower overlooking the Tay (c) Val Vannet

Kinnoull Hill tower overlooking the Tay (c) Val Vannet

and in fact Elcho Castle, my intended destination, is among the clump of trees on the opposite bank in the middle distance, just where the river meanders to the left. To get there, you take the Rhynd Road, which crosses the M90 to Dundee, offering a fine view of Friarton Bridge:

There are no pictures to cover the section between the bridge over the motorway and Elcho Castle, but that doesn’t mean nothing of note occurred – in fact, I learned (or rather was reminded of) two important truths, and prompted to ask myself a question which I had pondered before. The first truth is that you can’t get something for nothing: this applies as much to the realm of cycle gearing as it does anywhere else.

The motorway bridge is followed by an undulating stretch, then a stiffish climb, and it was there that I realised I was no longer ‘young and eoroch‘ as my mother is wont to say – though that was not the second important truth, more something I should know by this time.

My aim in buying the Mountain Drive had been to extend the epicyclic hub’s fixed range, which in my youth had always struck me as its most frustrating limitation – if you wanted to raise your top gear to blast along on the flat, you were forced to raise your lower gear too; conversely, if you wanted a bottom gear that was ‘a power for the hills’ then you lost top-end turning power. The Mountain Drive offers a spectacular 60% reduction (i.e. each ‘mountain’ gear is 40% of its normal counterpart, or 2.5 times smaller) which effectively gives you two bikes in one – you can set the normal drive to give you a high top end – in my case, with the Spectro P5, 50″ – 58″- 74.6″(direct) – 95″ – 118″ – while keeping a much lower range for hills available at the press of a button: 20″- 23″- 30″ – 38″ – 47″.

So instead of forcing the pedals round as if you were stirring cement as the gradient stiffens against you till eventually you have to stand up to turn them at all (then totter ignominiously and fall off into a ditch) you simply gear down till you meet with such minimal resistance a mouse could turn the pedals (if its legs were long enough and it could ride a bike)*

Simple, eh? well, not quite.

The truth of the matter is that resistance is not the whole story, as anyone who attends a spinning class (my wife, for example) could doubtless have told me: turning pedals fast against little resistance for any length of time takes considerable effort, especially when your legs are as hefty as mine – and when your gear is as low as 20″ (picture a very small unicycle) you do have to turn very fast to get anywhere at all, as the following sum will show:

20 x 3.14 = 62.8″ travelled for each turn of the pedals, so 100 turns will take you some 523′ 4″ further up the hill, so it would take more than ten times that to cover a mile (5280′)

… in other words, 10 minutes at 100 rpm (a pretty brisk rate) will take you not quite a mile, a headlong speed of fewer than six miles per hour. It would take a lot less effort, and not a great deal more time, if you got off and walked – which is what I did.

And that is the second great truth I was reminded of, which is particular to bicycling: never forget that you can always get off and walk. It does not take much effort to push a bicycle uphill, even a laden one (and mine was not). This is perhaps the most-overlooked virtue of the bicycle, that it offers not one, but three modes of transport: in normal mode, as a human-powered vehicle, it will work with you, making highly efficient use of the fuel you, the engine, burn to turn the pedals – you can travel three or even four times faster (or further, if you prefer) than you could on foot, with no greater effort; in downhill or freewheel mode, it will work for you, carrying you at great speed over long distances for no expenditure of effort at all on your part; yet in uphill or walking mode it is still more help than hindrance, since even though you have to push it, it will give you support in return, and carry your bags for you more easily than you could yourself; and your pace will not be significantly slower than if you were just walking, especially festooned with bags.

So don’t underuse your bicycle! walk with it from time to time, as the occasion suits.

And the question all this prompted me to ask myself?

‘How many gears does a man need?’ (which I will deal with in another place) Meantime, I made do with ten.

The spur down to Elcho Castle is well-suited to mode 2 (freewheel) cycling, though it has a spectacular bend in the middle, which I believe delighted my brother Mike in his youth, when he rode a tiger-striped bicycle which was as close as you could get to a motorbike without an engine. I took it rather more cautiously, and was surprised to find myself visited by calvinistic notions (not my persuasion at all) that this breezing downhill was all very well, but it would have to be paid for in the end, as I’d just have to come back up – proof that some rags of melancholy still clung to me.

But in no great time I descended to the river and found myself at the ancestral home of the Wemyss family, which they built around 1560 and lived in till 1929, when the 11th Earl of Wemyss gave it into state care.


It was not open at that hour, though there was a man working at something in the garden. It is a fine sight, it must be said, with the saltire flying against the evening sky;  must take a look inside some day.


Once you have climbed back up to Rhynd (yes, more mode 3 pushing) your reward is a fast sweeping descent with a couple of near-right-angle bends, then a long and very straight stretch which includes a measured kilometre and is favoured by the faster members of the cycling fraternity in this airt. But I have to say, for me, straight roads are oppressive, even tedious (unless you are making good speed down a poplar-lined straight in France, at the wheel of a suitable piece of vintage machinery – a Bugatti say, a vintage Bentley, or an Hispano-Suiza; but on a bike they are just a bit too unending for my taste – a kind hill has bends in it; as does an interesting flat road). Fortunately there were other things to see – a glance into the fields had me wondering if I had entered a time-slip and was witnessing the homeward march of an orderly troop of  woolly mammoths:


or perhaps giant hedgehogs?

img class=”alignnone size-full wp-image-184″ alt=”108_2510″ src=”” width=”500″ height=”333″ />

giant purple hedgehogs? ‘Light thickens, and the giant purple hedgehog makes pace to the rooky wood; good things of day begin to droop and drowse…’

However, I found these strange humped entities far from sinister – the opposite, in fact; the sight of them lifted my spirits and dispelled the last shred of melancholy. A little further on, you raise the eponymous Bridge of Earn on the left, somewhat dwarfed by an enormous pylon.


The homeward run is a fine long straight (maybe it’s only narrow straights that oppress? – discuss. Breadth certainly adds character to a road) followed by a fair climb (no need for walking, though) up past the cottages at Craigend that give their name to the complex interchange that connects the motorways to Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee, which you pass under before breasting the rise to a fine view of the Fair City, which I did not pause to photograph, but it looks a bit like this, (courtesy of Visit Dunkeld):

Perth Scotland 010_jpg

And so, by a vicus of recirculation, we come past Elcho Castle and environs back to our own dear home, to find that we have covered a further 11.8 miles, my Dream Roadster and I:


– and my melancholy is banished, for the present. So that initial effort was worth making.

*a limiting proviso, I grant you.

Dream Roadster Shakedown

(for a map of this route, see here)

dream roadster by step

Ready for the off

This started inauspiciously: I set out intending to go over by Callarfountain into Strathearn, a fine rough path that would suit the roadster I thought, preceded by a stiff climb that would test the Mountain Drive (and me).

Lucas odometer

starting milage on Lucas odometer

I didn’t get far – about a third of the way up Glenlochay Road in bottom gear – legs thrashing furiously – my chain snapped, so I had to turn and ignominiously wheel back to the house. This was one of the moments when a small incident becomes critical: Julius Caesar, landing in Britain, stumbled and measured his length on the shore, an event which must have drawn gasps of dismay from his men, for the Romans were great ones for omens and auguries – surely this was inauspicious? But shrewd Caesar, seizing a handful of soil, stood up and said ‘thus do I claim thee!’ (or some such) and there were smiles all round.

Examining my chain, I saw how easily I could make this an excuse for sticking the bike back in the shed and going off to do something else: it wasn’t meant to be, leave it for another day (I have to say at this point that I have a history of disappointment with the Mountain Drive, which I’ll discuss elsewhere, but which undoubtedly fed into this moment). But closer inspection showed that the chain was not actually broken – it had only sprung a link, no doubt from my own haste and lack of care in putting it on. So I fetched the chain tool, fixed it, and resolved to go by another, less demanding route, just to see how everything ‘shook down’.

I turned downhill and headed into town, visiting a plant shop at Pauline’s request, then off along the Lade, an 800-year-old man-made stream that diverts water from the Almond (a tributary of the Tay) through Perth, originally to provide power for watermills. Now it provides some very pleasant walking or cycling through the town.

leafy cycle path

Ladeside cyclepath, Perth

I meant to go on to Almondbank, but I missed the turn for the link to National Cycle Route N77 (you have to go over the railway bridge at Tulloch – I went the other way to Dunkeld Road). I crossed over, rode on for a bit, then turned into North Muirton and picked up cycleroute N77 going in the other direction, along the North Inch by the banks of the Tay:

by the flood wall on the North Inch, beside the Tay

by the flood wall on the North Inch, beside the Tay

The wall is part of the elaborate flood defences that were put in place in 2001 following a disastrous series of floods in 1990 and 1993. They were tested by another severe flood in 2006. From here, I headed along the North Inch to the Old Bridge, where the floods are marked. The bridge, built by John Smeaton, architect of the Eddystone Lighthouse, was begun in 1766  and completed in 1771, 150 years after its predecessor had been swept away in a flood, so it brought great economic benefit to Perth. It was widened in 1869 – the stone parapets were removed and footpaths built out on iron brackets on each side. Knowing that our town bridge predates the founding of the United States affords me a simple pleasure.

The Old Bridge, Perth

The Old Bridge, Perth

And so home.

The journey – the first I had made in a couple of years – had the desired effect: it was a shakedown for me as well as the bike. I renewed my acquaintance with the joy of riding, experiencing the familiar sense of wondering puzzlement at how I could ever have stopped doing something so pleasurable.

The bicycle survived with no further mishap, though on checking on my return I found the Mountain Drive (which effectively clamps the bottom bracket by screwing into itself) had worked loose, again the result of a hasty lack of care in installing it – still, that’s what shakedown trips are for. I tightened it up and put the bike in the shed, quietly elated.

Dream Roadster Shakedown – an inadvertent trailer

This started inauspiciously: I set out intending to go over by Callarfountain into Strathearn, a fine rough path that would suit the roadster I thought, preceded by a stiff climb that would test the Mountain Drive (and me).

I didn’t get far – about a third of the way up Glenlochay Road in bottom gear – legs thrashing furiously – my chain snapped…

Well now!

– to find out what happened next, you should visit my new blog, 40-635, which is where I meant to post this – it’s all about my bicycle adventures.There are lots of pictures!

This particular story continues here: Dream Roadster Shakedown.



Stories: the Odyssey and Ulysses

Stories are tales of the past recounted in the present. Each of these elements – the past, the recounting, the present –  is important to an understanding of how stories work. In storytelling, the important relation is not between the story and its original (a mistake moderns are increasingly prone to make) but between the audience and the story.

All stories wear the guise of being about something that has happened – ‘once upon a time’ – and in an age obsessed with journalism and news-reporting, this can mislead us. We can too readily suppose that for the story to be ‘true’ it must correspond as precisely as possible to a set of actual events – ‘what really happened’ – and the closer the correspondence, the truer the story will be; but this is a misunderstanding.

The past is inaccessible: you cannot go there. Nothing exists in the past. Life is lived in the present. The Romans, the Greeks, the Egyptians, our Neanderthal cousins – all lived, as we do, in the present. Stories are about what happened ‘once upon a time’ but they are told or read in the present and in the present is where they do their work.

In truth, a story has no relation to actual events. Was there a prince of Ithaca called Odysseus who went to the Trojan war and took a long time coming back? It does not matter. There was a place called Troy, certainly, and doubtless there was a war (that is one thing you can rely on: men fighting) and Ithaca – which is a real island, though not perhaps the one now called by that name – likely had a Prince, and his name could well have been Odysseus.

But did he dally with the nymph Calypso on Ogygia after being shipwrecked in the culmination of a series of adventures that saw him escape the one-eyed giant Polyphemus, steer between the monster Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis, hear the sirens sing, see his men turned to swine by a sorceress, and visit Hell along the way?

The question is a foolish one. A story stands or falls by what is in it, not its relation to something outside it. What is true about the Odyssey is the character of Odysseus, the resourceful man: he deals with life – particularly in adversity – as we feel a man ought to – he is bold, but not reckless; he takes risks but shows judgement: the sirens are worth taking risks to hear. He shows the proper attitude to life, making the best of it and bearing up under adversity.

What matters is that he gets the better of Polyphemus, that he finds a way past Scylla and Charybdis, that he contrives a means to hear the Sirens sing and yet not perish – it is not the specific nature of the obstacles, but the fact he overcomes them that matters. That is what heartens us, encourages us as human beings.

Life is an Odyssey: even everyday life. That is what James Joyce’s Ulysses tells us: the two need to be considered together; they shed light on each other, and on what storytelling is all about.