Monday, May 21, 2012

The passing and turning of wheels

Albert Winstanley is dead, and so is Alan Oakley. I'd bet very few readers will have  registered the former (Albert died this March), and whilst you might have heard the news about Alan, I doubt you knew his name before today.

Alan Oakley was the chap who designed the Chopper bicycle: the best selling bike that Raleigh ever made. It was a Seventies icon that saved the business and wrought havoc to the testicles of twenty thousand teenage boys. I was never allowed a Chopper - they were for 'bad lads', my father used to say - and my pleas that it would be good for the paper round made no difference. Instead he got me a twenty year old three speed roadster which weighed a tonne and was laughed at the first time I rode it to school.

Albert was from a generation previous, and a writer not a designer. He rode a touring bike with a cotton duck saddle bag, a rolled cape strapped on top; the old photos show him in brogues and baggy shorts, about as far from the street-cred of Chopper riders as it's possible to imagine. Albert had toured  across Europe when most folk were still heading to Blackpool for holidays - but he was best known for his forays in the North of England. In the unassuming columns of the Cycling Weekly and Cycling World his recollections of 'golden days awheel' captured a delight in the outdoors that was keenly felt by many of the post war generation.

I was twenty five before I could afford a decent touring bike. That hadn't stopped me cycling camping as a kid, or riding the hundred mile round trip to see my girlfriend when I was at university. My most vivid cycling memory is riding in Leicestershire through fields of oil seed rape. It was a new crop back then and I remember marvelling at the acid lemon landscape - and feeling more free and less troubled than ever before. I still love rape fields; I know they've replaced swathes of pastoral countryside, but I can't help it - every time I see them, I remember that day.

This evening, in the park near my house a group of teenage lads were skulking under hoodies and baseball caps. They came to sit by the bowling green, some way from the club house but near enough to provoke discomfort. 'Here's trouble,' said one of the members as the bowlers finished their twenty first end. In the event, nothing much transpired; a bit of swearing, the odd kick to a litter bin, and then they departed, two of them on BMX bikes - the modern equivalent of a Chopper. Jane was annoyed they'd spoiled the peace. Bad lads, I thought, and though I know that's unfair for it's only youthful rebellion, I couldn't help it either.

It's stretching things to say that cycling has defined my life. But it's been a constant presence, and in different ways my bikes and the joys they've given me, mirror my journey too. There's a part of me will always wish I'd had a Raleigh Chopper; and another that knows they were never for me. There's a part that's delighted to see the thousands of enthusiasts riding cyclo-sportifs each weekend; and there's another that thinks they should travel more slowly - like Albert, with a saddle bag and a rolled cape - through fields and fells that would harvest memories of gold.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Porthgain quarry

To the west of the picturesque harbour of Porthgain is an old granite quarry. It once supplied roadstone that was first crushed then shipped up the Bristol Channel. Never a commercial success, the quarry closed in the1930s; its greatest legacy is the industrial archeology which helps define the village today - a patchwork of abandoned tramways and derelict buildings that could be Pembrokeshire's version of a spaghetti western film set.

When the quarry closed, you'd not have bet on Porthgain becoming hit with the tourists. Yet today, the Sloop Inn is the best pub for miles; there's a renowned fish restaurant, a couple of galleries, some old anchors on the village green ... Cerys Mathews had her wedding reception here. And from the harbour it's less than two miles to Abereiddy and the Blue lagoon, on a path that's a high contender for best coastal walk in Wales.

The village attracts thousands of visitors every week, but I'd bet that less than one in five hundred ever ventures into the quarry. There's a geocache there now, so perhaps that should be one in three hundred; who knows, the point is most folk walk by, despite the coastpath skirting its western edge. Part of the problem is that to reach the middle tier requires an ungainly scramble, and the lower platform a moderate rock climb. In a way it's a pity, because the quarry is the ultimate relic of Porthgain's past - it's also one of the best micro-sites for wildlife, due in part to its relative isolation.

We went there yesterday evening - to look for peregrines. Dylan insisted on playing Lord of The Rings - he was Gandalf, I was Gimli, and Jane, 'that girl with the frizzy hair'. In between his thunder bolts and wizard spells, we sat with our backs to the sharp granite boulders facing the pale horizon of the sea. There was no wind under the cliffs, the afternoon's clouds had cleared; a rose chested bird was hopping between the boulders.

The bird was a wheatear; there were winchats too, swallows and martins swooping over the edge -  no choughs which bred here last year; no ravens either. They say if you can't see the peregrine you should look to the sky - I did, but the sun was too bright. And so as Dylan fought his second battalion of Orcs, I found myself reflecting on how this place was at it's commercial height.

Pretty hideous I expect. Photographs in the Sloop show gangs of labourers, sledge-hammers in hand - even the tramways were once hauled by men - none of them look fat and they all look older than I suspect they are - there were no pensions those days. The landscape I love so much would have been little compensation for the toil of hewing rock under the constant threat of lay-off as the quarry lurched from one financial crisis to another. Back in Porthgain, the two room cottages that are now considered too small for holiday lets, would have housed entire families.

I'm no expert on the history and importance of this quarry, but I'm pleased that the National Park has not interfered with the headland. It's a small delight that the buildings and tramways are not being prettied up and museum-ified, and heartening that the quarry hasn't been cordoned off for health and safety concerns. None of this is for lack of care on my part: the industrial past is part of what makes Porthgain so special (interestingly, we find visitors either 'get it' or they don't - no middle ground) - but in my view, you understand that best by getting close, not by reading information boards. The landscape and wildlife are important too - and nature's slow reclamation of the quarry has added not taken away. By leaving well alone, it seems to me we are honouring both sides of the equation.

Having had enough of being Gimli and the frizzy girl, we left the quarry and walked to Ynys Barry cliffs. There was an enormous oil beetle on the path (be careful where you tread - it's a species at risk but holding out in coastal regions) - we picked it up, letting it crawl from hand to hand between the three of us, before placing it carefully under some gorse. If I had more time I could easily become fascinated by beetles - astonishing little things. The shadows on Garn Fawr were darkening to purple - the peregrines had not returned but it didn't matter.  We made it back to the village with just enough time for haddock and chips on the harbour walls.