Rest day

Today was meant to be a rest day, a sort of “recharge the batteries” day.

…only one problem, what to do?

I admit, I made a bit of an administrative error staying at a hotel without a swimming pool, but the food more than makes up for that; tonight Magret de Canard, for example!

So what does a long distance motorcyclist do on his day off?

Go for a ride on his bike, that’s what!

To be more precise, go for a lightweight spin up Cime de la Bonette without the encumbrance of luggage, do a bit of exploring and have a nice picnic lunch on the high alp.

All of which came together perfectly.

We got out good and early and managed to reach to summit before the hoards descended. The big Cols often get busy late morning and mid afternoon, so if you want to have a bit of peace either go early or aim for very late afternoon/early evening.

We did a bit of trundling around at altitude and some on-foot wandering around, which at altitude was a tad tough, then found a lovely spot off the beaten track to enjoy lunch.

Not a bad view over lunch!


The altitude thing is interesting and effects people in different ways. It’s generally agreed that doing what I did, going up quickly and then trying to do some strenuous exercise like hike-climbing isn’t a great idea; I can agree with that. You really need more time to acclimatise than I had, my body is used to living at 600ft above sea level in Cornwall, not 9400ft in the high alps!

This afternoon I got Harls fuelled and sorted for tomorrow then planned to have a quiet time doing some writing or maybe having a little snooze, but somehow it didn’t happen and I sort of trundled into supper time…which is where I am now!

The highlight of the evening so far, apart from the Magret de Canard which is incredibly good, has been watching Madame, the hotel owner, giving five German bikers a good dressing down for turning up for dinner in their riding leathers. Then telling them that they smell and sending them off for a shower before she serves them and even then that they must sit outside on the terrace! Priceless!

She winked at me as she strutted past after delivering her instructions; this formidable lady has a sense of humour without a shadow of doubt!

As for the Germans, well they seem to have slunk off for the shower as instructed!

It’s good to have standards.

Catch you soon.

Dookes

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Arrival or Departure

Frequently, in those idle moments that journeys throw at me, I ponder what is better, Arrivals or Departures?

I know, the old Dookes grey matter wanders in mysterious ways, but bear with me and I’ll explain where I’m coming from.

As I type this our ferry is making it’s final approach to Arrive in the Port of Roscoff. On-board there is a palpable air of excitement, stoked in no small part by a number of French school groups. The children are chattering in the animated carefree way that only the young can indulge in. They don’t worry if everything is packed, passport and documents ready, someone else takes care of that!

For my part, I sit in the lounge watching busy activity on the quayside as dockers secure the mooring ropes and make fast the ship against the dock. The strong Solstice morning sun glares through the windows, it’s certainly looking like its going to be a lovely day. It’s early, too early for everything except strong coffee and a moment to let the day come to me; let it Arrive if you like.

Departing Plymouth


Last night we took the short ride from Dookes H.Q. to the port of Plymouth, so often the beginning of various adventures. It was the moment of Departure and in many ways I hate it; yet at the same time I love it too… weird eh?

I hate leaving behind everything that is precious and closest to me, Mrs Dookes, our home, comfort in the familiar; yet there’s an adventure and exploration lying ahead of us.

The open road….calling.


As I get older that wrench of separation gets harder and the excitement of the unknown diminishes.

Then we hit the road and the focus switches, time to concentrate.

Arrival or Departure?

It kind of depends on which one you are doing…

Catch you later.

Dookes

Snow

The “Beast from The East” blew through Europe this past week bringing sub-zero temperatures and snow on a biting Easterly wind.

Predictably, large parts of the UK ground to a snowy halt as our infrastructure and many citizens failed to cope with the conditions.

Here at Dookes H.Q. we found ourselves nicely snowed in for two days, no drama and no panic. These days we don’t have a 4×4 vehicle; mostly we have no need. We also do not have snow chains or special snow tyres; again largely no need. What we do have is a good stock of firewood, two log burners, central heating with a full tank of fuel oil, plenty of food and an emergency generator if we need it; no worries there then!

The thing is though, as I look back over the years, this small dose of winter weather is exactly what we used to get on a regular basis when I was younger. I don’t know if you can blame it on “Climate Change,” but our weather is definitely different from when I was a child. Now before anyone pipes up that I must be looking back through the rose-tinted view of a child, statistics seem to support me. In the UK our winters are definitely warmer and wetter than they were as recently as fifty years ago. Our recent “Cold-Snap” has lasted about a week, in 1963 the cold spell lasted nearly three months!

Back when I worked in the railway industry we had, and often used, large snow-ploughs that were propelled by hefty diesel locomotives to keep the track clear. Then as winters got shorter, warmer and wetter many of the ploughs fell into redundancy. Over the years many of these ploughs were gradually disposed of, they were not being used and the cost of their maintenance simply did not make sense when balanced against the probability of their use, or so it was said! True, a number of ploughs were retained in Scotland where snow is often guaranteed, but overall the numbers fell.

Snow Ploughs at Blair Atholl, Scotland, 1982.
Photo Steven Duhig

In a way those old snow ploughs represent the situation throughout the United Kingdom in many other organisations and infrastructure; our response to adverse snow and ice is based on the likelihood of it occurring. No surprise that this attitude originates from accountants and bean counters, not from the people who actually get out there and deal with the conditions!

To be fair, here in the UK when we do get some winter rolling in we can generally get by with a dusting of rock-salt on the roads and an extra pullover. I just wish that with our “Everything Now” society that people would just take a moment to accept that some journeys really are not necessary and why not just embrace the conditions and enjoy it?

Outside Dookes H.Q., going nowhere!

Which is all a rather long-winded way of saying that I haven’t been out on any motorbikes for a few days… Actually, the thought of a nice 400cc single cylinder scrambler with big knobbly tyres really appeals, but Mrs Dookes just frowned at me with that idea!

In a way, I’m practicing what I preach. I haven’t needed to go anywhere, so why risk it. I have in the past ridden in snow, it’s OK but I really wouldn’t recommend it as a real fun experience. Some years ago I was heading up the North side of the Grimsel Pass in Switzerland. At the start of the climb by Lake Brienz it was raining and raining hard. I was heading for Andermatt and to get there I had to climb the Grimsel, which at 2165m/7103ft is quite a barrier.

Snow and Harls, not great fun!

As “Harls” and I began to climb, the air suddenly became noticeably colder and beyond the village of Innertkirchen the rain gradually turned to sleet, then it began to snow. Bear in mind that this was late June!

Somewhere down there is Innertkirchen.


The snow started to get heavy and I began to question whether I should go on. A pair of headlights came up behind and a van passed, giving me plenty of room on the whitening road. The van was sign-written for a builder from Andermatt, that was good enough for me, I set in to follow. The only problem was that it promptly disappeared into the murk.

My helmet visor was white with sticking snow, as was “Harls” touring screen; worst of all, my glasses were also covered over and I was peering over the top of them. I gritted my teeth and got on with it, I kept the bike in second gear and plugged away at the incline. My feet skimming the surface of the road acting as outriggers, but getting covered in snow! Bends came and went, I really had no idea where I was in relation to the summit of the pass; somewhere near the top I knew there were a couple of lakes, but I couldn’t see anything. I felt the gradient ease and we swung through a gap in the mountain, suddenly the snow turned to sleety rain we were over the top.

Grimsel Pass, South side.
Oh those twisties!


Within a few hundred metres the rain eased to mist and half a mile later we dropped out of the cloud, it had been quite an experience!

The lake on the top of the Grimsel – Nope, never saw it first time round!


Last summer I returned to the Grimsel and smiled to myself as “Harls” and I swept down its magnificent Northern flank. “So this is what it looks like” crossed my mind frequently!

Grimsel Pass North side.
“So this is what it looks like!”

Yes riding a motorcycle in snow is possible, but y’know I can’t really recommend it!

Catch you soon.

Dookes

Taking The Bus

Dookes H.Q. is situated on the edge of Bodmin Moor, an area of high granite moorland covering 80 square miles of North East Cornwall.

There’s only one slight problem, it’s a bit remote. Not exactly “Off Grid” to use a trendy term, but certainly a bit rural, we call it “Out in The Sticks.” Most of the time this isn’t a problem, but occasionally it can be a bit awkward, like today; I had booked my car into the local garage, eight miles away, for a service and Mrs Dookes was working 60 miles away at the other end of the county. Not good planning.

Let me be very clear, I love where we live and I’m not moaning!

I had three options:

1. Borrow a “Courtesy” car from the garage.
2. Book a taxi.
3. Catch the bus.

One thing about living in a rural area like ours is that you can easily slip into a sort of “bubble” existence and traveling everywhere by car only heightens that feeling of isolation; you look out at the world rather than being part of it. Another issue is that us rural dwellers often moan about the lack of services that townsfolk enjoy, like Post Offices and Public Transport. Often though the problem lies in us not using what is provided, the old “Use it or Loose it” conundrum!

Having spent a career running public transport services, on rails, I hang my head in shame to say that in sixteen years of living at Dookes H.Q. I’d never used our local bus. This is a service that is viewed by the good members of Cornwall Council to be of sufficient social necessity to warrant it being subsidised.

So with all things considered, I took the decision that today I would ride the bus!

With three spaniels barking to greet the dawn and eager for their breakfast, most days at Dookes H.Q. start pretty early. It really wasn’t any hardship therefore to drop my car off at the garage just after eight o’clock, which was great as I had time for a leisurely double espresso and perusal of the newspaper before catching the bus outside a local supermarket just after nine.

I found the bus waiting at the pick-up point, it’s engine running and the driver busily mopping the floor. The previous trip had been collecting up school children from the surrounding areas and their muddy shoes left evidence of the rural nature of the catchment area.

Just a little bus!


This morning I was the only person joining the bus at the start of it’s journey.

It turned out that my jolly driver, Julian, was originally from Romania. I more friendly person you couldn’t wish to meet. He explained that he was an economic migrant looking for better opportunities for his family, his wife was a school teacher and they had two children – I found all that out before we had even got moving, it was a glimpse into life on the little bus!

We looped around town to our next pick-up stop; road-works with temporary traffic lights played havoc with Julian’s schedule, but he kept smiling.
“Try driving in Bucharest,” he grinned at me, “A million times worse than this!”

I don’t doubt it.

Leaving the town centre there were just three of us on the bus. Julian, myself and an elderly lady who was travelling to an outlying village to play table tennis!

The three of us happily chatted the miles away, as the morning sun rose higher in the blue winter sky. As the route looped around a number of villages it drove home to me just how many widely splintered communities this little bus served. Small numbers of people joined as the bus made sporadic stops, sometimes in villages, sometimes at scattered farms. The atmosphere on board was like a friendly club; everyone knew each other. Well except for me, I was like the new boy in school and came under friendly scrutiny; this was quite a microcosm of the local society!

It’s tight on these rural lanes!


Sadly my destination point hove into view and Julian slowed the bus to a halt for me to disembark, where had the last hour gone?

I waved farewell to my travelling companions and set off to walk the two miles to Dookes H.Q. where the first Snowdrops are now in bloom, perhaps Spring is just around the corner.

Snowdrops

On such a lovely morning it was a joy to meander back to home along the lanes, it gave me time to ponder the service that such buses provide to rural communities.

Near Dookes H.Q.


With the exception of myself and one other chap, everyone else riding this morning was a senior and therefore in receipt of free bus travel. It was clear to see that this little bus not only provided a vital lifeline to the communities that it served, but it enabled people to access amenities that otherwise may be beyond their ability to travel to; it provides a real social need. In addition one little bus this morning kept a dozen cars off the road and that’s good for the environment as well, everyone wins!

The thing is though, these services are audited for the number of people riding and if those numbers fall to far, there is a real risk that the route will be cut or at least severely reduced.

I made a promise to myself to go ride the little bus again and get others to do so too.

“Use it or Loose it!”

Catch you soon.

Dookes

And Now For Something Completely Different!

A few years ago I took the somewhat, for me, momentous decision to retire early.

Since leaving a high-flying position the railway industry I had been running a grain storage cooperative for a bunch of ingrate farmers and had grown fed up with the job. I had a brilliant working relationship with the Company Secretary, he was fantastic to work with, but the politics of Directorial self-interest, coupled with what I believed to be a general air of Board incompetence which was holding the business back, finally got to me; I’d had enough it was time to move on!

I was fortunate to be in the position of not having to work. My pension plans had worked nicely for me, true Mrs Dookes and I weren’t going to be the next millionaires on the block, but we were OK. Who wants to be the richest corpse in the graveyard anyway?

One of the things about me is that I stew over things, I call it mental processing, but Mrs D calls it worrying! Faced with what was a pretty fundamental life decision I was frankly a bit bewildered. What the hell was I going to do with myself?

Now Mrs Dookes is a wise little bird…
“Don’t worry, everything will be alright,” said Mrs D and she promptly packed me off on a motorcycle trip!

I set out to explore the Größglockner High Alpine Road, Monza Racetrack and other parts of the Alps on Baby Blue. To be honest I was looking for a bit of head-clearing.. Click here to see more of that trip.

On the Grössglockner, sunny but cold.


Part of my planning was buying that brand new Harley Ultra Limited as a retirement present to myself, so I had put some thought into things!

It was whilst I was away, in Pavia just South of Milan if I remember correctly, that I got a call asking me if I was interested in helping out with English Heritage? EH is the organisation that manages the National Heritage Collection of England’s historic buildings and monuments which span more than 5000 years of history.

I had a blank page, so the answer was yes, with conditions. I wasn’t retiring to go back into full-time work. I wanted space to do other things that interested me, plus having more time for family and friends, not to mention riding motorbikes!

As a result I’ve two and a half years of fun playing around a number of amazing historic places and yes time for other interesting things…which leads me to the point of this post!

Just before Christmas I was talking to my good friend Alan, he runs his own stained glass business called Angel Stained Glass; you can get the link here.

New windows designed by Alan.

Alan gets involved in all sorts of interesting projects and by the very nature of stained glass windows much of them are in historic buildings, such as churches.

Poor Alan was a bit under pressure. Christmas was fast approaching. Christian churches as you may know, get very busy at that time of the year with all the carol services and suchlike, the pressure was on to get two projects finished!

Being the sort of chap who both likes a challenge and to help out a mate, I volunteered to give Alan a hand, plus I knew that it would be an interesting thing to do.

Which is how, in the week before Christmas, I found myself basking in winter sunshine, sitting forty feet up in the air on scaffolding outside a church in Cornwall’s County City, Truro. I was happily helping to repair a series of Victorian windows. My job was to check each tiny piece of glass was snugly held by the lead beading; any that were slightly loose needed attention with “lead cement.”

That’s me on the other side!

The name “Lead cement” is a bit misleading, it’s actually a type of black oily putty that is worked between the lead and glass to secure it all together, keep everything watertight and add strength to the panel. Working with the black gloopy stuff is highly satisfying and quite relaxing; well it is to me anyway! As an added bonus, when you are working on site with the windows you are right up close and very personal with the architecture. It’s quite a privilege to be able to touch things that normally you have to crane you neck to even see!

I’ve come to the conclusion that Alan’s line of work consists of three facets:
• Artistic creativity, particularly in the case of new windows.
• Diligent patience and sympathy with the materials.
• Hard, yet careful, physical work when moving the delicate leaded panels.

There is another factor though, that’s absolute total satisfaction and pride in the job when it’s finished; because its going to last another 150 years!

A few days later we were in the small but delightful Cornish village of Quethiock, population 429, with it’s medieval 14th century church dedicated to St Hugh. No sunshine to enjoy this time, but to work in such old and historic surroundings more than compensated.

The windows that we were working on had originally been made in the 1870’s by the then vicar of the parish the Reverend William Willimott. Some of the pieces of glass were medieval fragments that had been reused, whilst the good Reverend stained most of the rest in a wood fired kiln that he built in the Vicarage garden!

A window depicting St Hugh himself in Quethiock church.

“Willy” was by all accounts a pretty gifted chap, because not only did he make stained glass, but he also restored the church almost single-handed. He made wood-carvings, floor tiles and painted ceiling panels and murals whilst also attending to his Parish Duties. Oh yes, I nearly forgot, he was self-taught too!

The ceiling panels painted by Rev Willimott.

It was therefore pretty humbling to know that the last person to have handled the glass that we were refitting was the illustrious Willimott himself; talk about reaching across the years!

Anyway, we got the work done in time for the church to be readied for the Christmas festival and I have to say that I was humbled to have been involved; thanks Alan.

It certainly made a change from motorbikes, steam engines and all the other things that I get up to and don’t mention in this blog. All of which I wouldn’t be able to indulge in if I was still on the treadmill of full-time employment!

Mrs Dookes was correct. – Everything is alright!

“All right now, baby it’s all right now.”

Catch you soon.

Dookes

Christmas Eve – Better Than The Main Event!

I always raise a wry smile when I hear people ask, “Are you ready for Christmas?”

It’s as if that one day demands gargantuan effort and logistical planning for it to happen or be a success!

Now I know to an awful lot of folk in the “Christian” Western World that Christmas is indeed a massive thing, both in its preparation and execution; it’s not for me to say that they are wrong, but some years ago I had reason to re-think my own approach to the holiday, let me tell you about it.

In those days I was still working in the railway industry, I was a senior manager in the responsible for the delivery the safe operation of passenger train services. I had a fantastic team of local operations managers and train-crew who were dedicated to the job that they did, we had a great time working together. Our area of responsibility covered the Southern half of the U.K., it was demanding work but very satisfying.

In the lead up to any holiday period we always saw increased usage of our services as people travelled to enjoy their days off with family and friends. The Christmas period on the railways was and still is, a bit different, as it is the only time of the year that trains actually stopped running for the two-day holiday; so there is just a bit more pressure to get people home before the shut-down!

As the Christmas holiday was approaching we were struggling; a virus was going around that was severely stretching our train-crew resources and sadly a couple of services had been cancelled due to staff sickness. Our resources centre was doing a great job covering the timetable and the remaining staff were really helping out by being as flexible as possible, but we were up against it!

By the morning of Christmas Eve we had shuffled the deck enough to cover every train…except the last one.

Now I had a mantra, that basically said Never, cancel the last train.

I talked through the situation with the Duty Managers in the Control and Resources Centre. We were short of a Train Manager (known as a Guard/Conductor, in other places) for the last 200 miles of the last train, as a result the Control staff had already began to look at the possibility of using replacement road coaches.

I wasn’t at all happy about 300 of our passengers being put on a fleet of buses, especially so late on Christmas Eve!

No, it wasn’t a train like this either, but hey it’s sort of Christmassy!


As a career railwayman, over the years I had been trained in and done just about all of the jobs in the operations department, what’s more I had ensured that I maintained my Safety Critical Competency Certifications too. All our frontline staff and union representatives knew that “The Old Man” was quite capable of doing any of their jobs, especially in an emergency and this was an emergency!

It didn’t take me more than a couple of seconds to decide that if the last service needed a Train Manager that I would cover the shift.

I’ve got to say that Mrs Dookes wasn’t over happy when I told her what I was going to do, but she understood; she knew I was a railwayman and running railways was what I did.

As for the train. Well, from what I can remember it all went well and ran on time with no dramas, but it did have a nice “Travelling Home for Christmas” vibe.

We delivered the passengers to their destinations on time, then put the train away at the end of the run.

A taxi was waiting to take me home, which was about 100 miles away, I walked into our decorated house at one o’clock on Christmas morning…it was still Christmas Eve to me!

Waiting on the table was a candle-lit light meal of delicious goodies that Mrs Dookes had prepared and a chilled bottle of champagne to go with it too!

That’s how we have celebrated Christmas Eve ever since and in a way it’s become our most important tradition of the festive period, better than the main event in many ways!

I was incredibly lucky in my railway career; I worked in some amazing places alongside incredible people doing special things to keep the wheels rolling. Sometimes things were grim, but I have lovely memories of the camaraderie that we shared doing a job that most of us loved.

Tonight, when Mrs Dookes and I sit down to our supper I’ll raise a glass of something bubbly, toast railway people the world over. Then I’ll quietly think of that Christmas Eve so long ago and thank goodness that I’m married to a wonderful lady who understands what makes me tick and who created such a lovely tradition out of my stubbornness not to cancel a train!

Have a peaceful Christmas everyone!

Dookes

Solstice Bells

“Now is the Solstice of the year.
Winter is the glad song that you hear.”

It doesn’t take much to make me happy, which might seem a bit strange for a chap who owns two big Harley Davidson motorbikes, but it’s true. Today, for example, is one of those things that no-one can own, hold or claim; it’s the Winter Solstice and I’m a very happy Dookes as a result!

It’s probably fair to say that this has become my favourite day of the whole year!

In our Northern Hemisphere it is the shortest day, when the Sun barely shows itself above the horizon and then for the briefest possible time! Sunset today was just before 16:00hrs!

Stennes Sones Orkney


The Solstice marks the turn of the seasons when the days begin to grow longer and the warmth of Summer begins its long return journey.

It’s also the real beginning of Winter.

I written before how the relevance of this turning point has become stronger for me as I have grown older; I understand the ancient people who venerated the turning seasons and the Celestial Calendar.

It appears that since the dawn of time our forbears have found reason to celebrate a festival of light in the depths of the darkest day of the year. So why not have a party to celebrate the ending of one celestial year and the beginning of a new one?

Sounds good to me, but then I am a Welsh Wizard/Dewin Cymreig!

Let’s not forget that many other cultures and religions around the world also celebrate festivals at this time of the year and have the rebirth of light firmly as their focus.
The Christian Church has celebrated the birthday of Jesus Christ, Christmas, on December 25th since the 4th Century when Pope Julius I chose the date in an effort to replace the Roman Feast of Saturnalia. In several languages, not just English, people have compared the rebirth of the sun to the birth of the son of God.

It’s also interesting to reflect that the origins of many “traditional” Western Christmas decorations such as the Yule Log, Tree and Wreath can trace back to pre-Christian times.

Familiar decorations of green, red and white cast back to the Wiccan traditions and the Druids. The old Pagan Mid-Winter Festival of Yule also included feasting and gift giving, doesn’t it all sound very familiar?!?!

When I was younger we always did the usual Christmas decoration stuff, including a highly non-authentic artificial tree! My late father did little to dress the tree, but had his own take on the whole decoration thing that he insisted on doing himself; every year he would garland the house with boughs of green holly and evergreen, it was only then that I truly used to feel that things were being done properly. I suspect that my Celtic blood has a lot to do with this and I still carry on that tradition today in Dookes H.Q., I adore the house smelling of pine and other evergreens! image

Many Pagan religions had a tradition where it was customary to place holly leaves and branches in and around dwellings during winter. It was believed that the good spirits who inhabited forests could come into their homes and use the holly as shelter against the cold; whilst at the same time malevolent forces and spells would be repelled.

Mrs Dookes enters into the spirit of the season with her splendid handmade evergreen wreaths. This reflects another Celtic tradition, the wreath’s circle has no beginning or end and the evergreen represents life in the depths of winter.

Whether you are celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah, Yule, The Solstice, Dongzhi, Yalda, Saturnalia, Malkh, any other festival that I may have missed, or just looking forward to having a restful holiday, have a truly wonderful time and maybe spare a thought, or penny, for those less fortunate.

Thanks for joining me for the ride this year, it’s been a ball and I hope you will saddle up with Harls, Baby and I in ’18 for more two-wheeled adventure and opinion!

“Praise be to the distant sister sun,
joyful as the silver planets run.
Ring out, ring solstice bells.”

Catch you soon.

Dookes

With grateful thanks to Ian Anderson and Jethro Tull for sharing the Solstice over many decades!