As a look back at the year I have extracted the highlights and low points of what will be a year many feel lost to the virus. In reality life went on but it was different. I suffered lockdown less than most mainly due to a bicycle, however, I yearn for the freedom to do more next year.
Anna’s Sight Restored
Lined up from the previous autumn was a trip to the east coast of Australia where I’d cycle from Melbourne to Cairns. A couple of thousand miles trundle in a country I’d never visited. A November 2019 holiday in South Africa enabled me to get fit in the winter and I’d worked closely with Leeds Beckett University on a nutrition regime to propel me more comfortably up the coast. Escaping the British winter was a complete bonus and after I completed the ride Anna would be in Cairns for us to see more of the country but a little more comfortably!
However, Anna whilst riding her bike near Hermanus in South Africa got double vision in one eye. All the medics, in South Africa or York, checked to see if there was anything terribly untoward, there wasn’t, and then said it’ll return to normal sometime in the next six months. In the meanwhile she couldn’t drive and would be ‘land locked’ in Acaster Malbis unless a chauffeur hung around. So goodbye Australia and my January flights.
Then on a frosty February morning she looked casually out of the window and not everything was double. A trip to the Eye Clinic followed and she was declared able to drive. The rescheduling of my trip was allowed but Anna chose not to follow me as Margaret, her mother, was scheduled for an operation and she wanted to be at hand. My adventure was back on albeit seven weeks later but now free of bush fire risks. I booked a flight for late February. What else could possibly go wrong?
I started my trip cycling up from Melbourne into the Victorian countryside. Melbourne was too cosmopolitan and diverse for my liking or my previous understanding of what Australia was like. I’d come to see the men wearing corks off their wide brimmed hats, drinking a ‘tinny’, obsessing about cricket, using the swear word ‘bloody’ and with a proud history of standing side by side with the Brits in whatever war we were fighting. Victoria was wide open, uninhabited and reminiscent of the US mid-west.
To get north the only option was to ride alongside a highway getting soaked by the spray from 18 wheelers dodging dead kangaroos on the hard shoulder as the skies opened. A bus ride saw me complete the journey to Sydney. This city was a complete treat with world class things to see and do.
So across the harbour bridge I headed north up the coast where adventures included losing my passport, getting stung on my butt maybe 20 times by mosquitos in an hour and seeing so many fabulous beaches that I became blasé. Disappointingly the Australians are a hardy and self contained bunch. A ‘pom’ on a bike is no big deal and conversations or engagement was limited although I did pick up one pearl of wisdom from a camper I approached, after I arrived at a campsite and Reception was shut. I was concerned that I would enrage the owners to set up my tent without their permission. He opined that it was ‘always easier to obtain forgiveness than permission’. Noted!
Brisbane was a sensational looking city on an ox bow river and here I found a friendly face and a enjoyed beer with Karl on St Patrick’s Day. He’s a pal we’d made from a wonderful earlier holiday in Sri Lanka. He proved the exception, as Australians went, and bought me a beer or two! After a brief rest it was continuing up the coast although the road was difficult to travel due to the level of traffic prohibiting bicycles. I was liking Queensland and relishing the next 1,000 miles. However, with Britain planning a pandemic lockdown and flights becoming scarce I was soon back in Brisbane trying to find a box to pack my bike in for the flight back to Blighty.
Such adventures throw up many memories many of which come back to you over time as little things remind you. Eg. I still would like to walk on the beach at Hawks Nest, NSW and then have another fabulous breakfast at The Benchmark on Booner restaurant again. Other moments will enter my head as I search for sleep one night. The full blog is available by clicking this link.
Brilliant Weather and DIY
So back in Britain and confined to barracks I discovered Zoom and Teams and also spent days on my knees repointing the patio. Walking and catching up (digitally) with old friends was a daily task as we endured the isolation. Strict alcohol consumption regimes were enforced as you can enjoy yourself too much. Supermarkets bemused me as they were ‘super spreader’ environments that undermined all the other actions taken to protect us.
Anna went into overdrive befriending folk who were afraid or discouraged from doing essential shopping. She was often collecting shopping lists, and probably more importantly, spending time on doorsteps talking to these elderly folk and giving them some much needed conversation and company. A true angel. Her mileage to and from my father -in-law’s care home must have and is stretching into thousands of miles and usually it was to talk through a window as below.
His other daughters were as attentive as they could be but living in either Manchester or London meant they were often prohibited from travelling. As her less capable assistant I was recruited to cook a few meals for one neighbour who gamely didn’t object to my chicken chasseur or bolognese sauce. He’s still alive! My other help was selling some stuff on eBay for one neighbour: I was surprised by how much his jigsaw and drill fetched. My other actions to obtain an MBE included two mornings in the lake extracting bullrushes out of thick mud in front of another neighbour’s house who needed some brawn.
The weather made everything tolerable but the virus was a mystery in terms of how it really spread and controlling it; after the Dunkirk spirit the whole pandemic went even more toxic as hounding the Government turned into a blood sport by the media. Literal questions ‘of how do feel about killing so many people Prime Minister?’ This hostility made me want to be abroad even more.
Plans were made to celebrate Anna’s ‘seventy less ten’ birthday (thank you Favourite Youngest Daughter, Sophie, for this gem) with fine dining and some time away as a family. The virus stopped not only the family decamping to somewhere but also the daughters appearing only by the screen on her iPhone. Rescheduling was made for the autumn (but that booking also got cancelled). Anyway she doesn’t look that old in any case!
If anyone celebrated Anna’s landmark it was me! This milestone kicked in a occupational pension and she kindly used some of the dosh for me to buy a new expensive bike, my first in 12 years. So a top of the range Cannondale with electronic gear change, 28mm wide tyres and disc brakes became my dream ride up and down the country lanes. That takes my collection back up to five bikes. Only five? I hear you say…
For the residents of care homes the virus was a danger and social disaster. They were rightly imprisoned and communication was through windows often shut to keep the bad weather out. Meanwhile you tried to eyeball your relatives as you talked to them on mobiles. It had to be thus, but what a regime. For my mother-in-law, the most social of ladies, this was a burden made worse by a delayed operation to alleviate excruciating pain caused by a hip. She had a few days of joy on the announcement that they were now scheduling a date for her to have that operation in late spring.
There were risks known to us all. Due to her other conditions it went wrong and she passed away; it was a terrible shock. For her daughters it was doubly distressing as they hadn’t been in her presence for over three months. The care and attention that would have been lavished on her by the family as she resided in hospital was not possible. It hailed on the day of her sparsely attended funeral. After having been her son-in-law for over 30 years even I was unable to attend the service due to the restriction on numbers attending. Left was a widowed husband not used to being apart from his lifelong companion.
Lockdown One was Over
Many things were relaxed. Trips to the household wastes sites was now possible. After all those weeks of sorting and throwing away I could now deposit it with City of York Council. Deep joy. Shops started to open and money could be spent with organisations other than Amazon. The threat of the second wave was known but in the meanwhile we enjoyed the changes.
Katrina (Favourite Eldest Daughter) was now tired of being cooped up all day and night in a Manchester city centre flat with only two rooms. This, during the lockdown restrictions and working from home, became a prison. So she tripped across the Pennines stayed with us for about a month disappearing into the dining room to don her headset and deal with the rest of Europe (as her job demanded) occasionally popping out for food and drink. However, after 5pm she was then frog marched around the village and the woods to get her daily exercise, pumped for information about her busy working day and then sent into the kitchen to create fine food for her father. It worked for us!
In fact with all this walking from March until today I became profoundly aware of the seasons. From damp, colourless and gloomy shuffles around the wood albeit with sightings of deer we progressed to lots of newborn lambs, carpets of bluebells, remarkable giant rose coloured flowering rhododendron bushes, hateful horse fly bites in the long grass and birdsong everywhere.
Slowly it changed as the lambs went to the dinner plates of Yorkshire, the flowers died, the heat disappeared and the verdant vegetation started to turn to the colours of autumn. The journey continues.
France and Leeds United
By July I was granted permission by Anna to use a flight that had been booked in February to go to Carcassone in the south of France. On an empty Ryanair flight I flew into the heat with my bicycle and a 1,000 mile ride home. It soon became clear that despite all the reporting in the UK that our handling of the pandemic was a disaster that the French had little or no meaningful control or protocols for social distancing or face masks. They just had a bigger country where there were less people packed together. My ride was hard, much more demanding than Australia, but it was great to be back out there doing what I love.
Even better was not being in England suffering the trauma of the final few games in the Championship following Leeds United’s attempt to get promoted. I was in Bar-le-Duc the night it happened. However I can also tell you where I was in the French wilds when we scraped past Barnsley or when Pablo Hernandez got the winning goal at Swansea. After a couple of weeks I was in Belgium and Holland as they went back into lockdown.
(Obviously I continued to cycle back in Yorkshire and clocked up over 6,000 miles for the year. That’s the equivalent of York to Beirut and back!) Click here for a trip to the link.
If I had frustrations then nothing compared to Katrina and Matt. They’d had written in the diary their wedding for months. It was to be held in Manchester, one of the worst places to be hit in the country. This meant the arrangements had to be changed and generous relatives disappointed by having their invitations revoked. However, on a sunny day in August it took place. A reception on the terrace roof of a multi storey city centre hotel was perfect; speeches were made, glasses raised and cake eaten. The day was a joy and the troths were pledged. One daughter gone.
Signs of Mortality
One of truly grim aspects to growing old is that the statistics kick in and people you know pass. They die much younger than is expected and usually with short illnesses. A long time school friend of Anna’s seemed the picture of health by running half marathons and seemed irrepressibly bouncy. From my recollection of Sally being sat on our sofa last Christmas to discussing her quickly failing health whilst sat on a bench whilst taking a break from a long day in the saddle in France. The cancer took her and on another sunny day we were at York Crematorium still wondering what had happened. With these events it always make you remember life is not a rehearsal.
Buying an affordable bicycle became a challenge as bike shops sold everything they had but simply couldn’t replenish. Anna fortuitously got sorted with a local shop and was now the owner of a racing bike. The world was now her oyster and a few nights away at Hadrian’s Wall and in the Borders saw her ride up and down a few difficult hills. This time in Norfolk it was flatter but she faced a greater distance. We stayed in Lavenham and saw some seaside towns on two wheels. After my overseas adventures then these were her only holidays.
Getting a Grip
Eventually it appeared the end might be in sight as vaccines are received and people start to get inoculated. The lockdowns had been partially successful as large groups of people continued to ignore the government’s instructions to wear a mask, keep a social distance and wash their hands. As we emerge from this time what damage has been done to jobs, retail, careers, other aspects of health etc? It will all unfold.
Full Steam Ahead
Anna chose to look up some of Margaret’s old friends. One such couple lived in east Yorkshire and I’d met them once before in 33 years of marriage! Eric is 92 years old and writing up his life story. It’s a hell of a life leaving school in Hull at 13 years old and going to work on a farm. It didn’t help that it was wartime and Hull was being blitzed. From here a career on the railway began in the glorious age of steam with Eric on the footplate where after National Service he found his way to East Africa and Tanganyika . Foolishly I offered to type it up not realising he’s already written 200,000 words! What a story, it’s a compelling journey told in bright technicolour through different times and attitudes when you can only but marvel at the deprivation, dangers and the simpler times. What a joy to stumble on this project.
So with the vaccine being rolled out we can contemplate a return to the new normal, whatever that is. A deal on Brexit was concluded that seems to offer few downsides that I can see for Anna and me. So here’s to 2021, with just the small matter of Premiership survival to trouble my sleep.
Happy New Year.