When we lived in France, the route of the Tour de France twice passed our house. Before the cyclists whizz past, there’s the publicity caravan, an unending stream of advertisers tossing out toys and trinkets to the expectant crowds waiting for the cyclists to pass. Here’s one ….
Dear dear dear.
What happened here?
Was he stopped?
Did he topple off?
Was he on autopilot?
We shall never know.
Not Top Dog now, is he?
This bicycle has been here, thrust through the back wall of Middle Parks Farm near Ripon, since the Tour de France came to Yorkshire in 2014.
Shock! Horror! Unheard of! Today we could be found (a) watching day time television and (b) it was a cycling programme.
The Tour de France, to be exact. Normally we only display an interest in this or any other cycling event if it passes our front door: as it did twice when we lived in France, and once, in 2014, when memorably, the Tour began in Yorkshire.
Today however, stage 15 of this year’s Tour took place in the area we called home, the Ariège. We had to watch. The struggles of the cyclists passed us by as we grew nostalgic, even damp-eyed as familiar roads, familiar landscapes appeared on screen.
But as I watched, I was reminded of an incident that took place in Laroque, back in 2012.
Every year, just before the Tour, another cycling race takes place in the Ariège: L’Ariégeoise. It’s divided into three levels of difficulty: the Ariégeoise itself (160 km,3,500 m. of climbing), the Mountagnole (118 km, 2,500 m. of climbing) and for wimps, the Passejade, a mere 68 km, and 750 m. of climbing.
That year, the route passed our way. That year, the routes of the two main races parted company in Laroque. And that year, there were no signs to say so…. and nor were there special marshalls for the Mountagnards.
As the riders arrived at the crossroads in town , they didn’t know where to go. Ariégeoises followed Mountagnards. Mountagnards followed Ariégeoises. It was hopeless. Riders tried to turn round, collided with those behind them, swore, and swore again as they saw their hard-won perfect timings being swallowed up in the chaos. With extraordinary presence of mind, I shot some video footage.
I heard later that following the event, the race organisers used my little clip for training purposes, to demonstrate How Not To Organise a Cycling Event. I’m guessing it’s part of every year’s Tour de France training too. That’s why it always runs so smoothly.
You can read all about it here.
Three years ago, plans were hatched for an annual Tour de Yorkshire.
This year, le Tour once again passed the end of our drive.
We watched the Women’s Race from the end of our road, and had a happy low key morning chatting to neighbours we knew, and neighbours we hadn’t previously met. Police motorbikes sped past, support vehicles, a helicopter above, then the riders themselves, followed by more support vehicles, more police, and finally, a couple of women riders who were never going to make it into the winning cohort, but were giving it their best shot anyway .
During the afternoon though, I sauntered into West Tanfield to watch the Men’s Race. I arrived to find a party atmosphere. There, amongst all the stalls on the village field, was the Big Screen showing the progress of the Tour in real time. Just look though. Just as in ze Tour de Fraunce, everysing eez in Frainch. ‘Tour de Yorkshire’, ‘Le Côte de Lofthouse’, ’29 avril 2017′. It’s a sweet little homage to the Tour de France, without which …..
I’d missed the caravan giving out freebies. A friend told me that in Health and Safety conscious England, these aren’t chucked randomly out of publicity vehicles. Instead the vehicles stop, and small teams amble among the crowds, giving out flags, batons, shopping bags. She said it was rather nice and added to the party atmosphere.
A hot air balloon was moored near the pub. We didn’t find out why, as it never became airborne.
As the Big Screen informed us the riders had reached Masham, we started to line the streets. Volunteer Tour Makers shooed us onto the pavements, and we waited …. First of all, police motor bikes. Then this vehicle, complete with Man with Microphone. ‘Allez, allez allez’, he yelled. ‘Oi! Oi! Oi!’, we yelled back. ‘Allez, allez, allez!’ ‘Oi! Oi! Oi!’. ‘Allez!’ ‘Oi!’, ‘Allez!’ ‘Oi!’ ‘Allez, allez, allez!’ ‘Oi! Oi! Oi!’
Then this, the moment we’d been building up to.
They were gone. More support vehicles, and a final one telling us it was over.
We all wandered off, perhaps to check out the big screen showing the riders going through Ripon. As I left the village, the dustbin men were already clearing the streets. The party was over.
Not much more than a mile up the road is West Tanfield. It’s an ancient village that already existed when the Domesday Book was written in 1086. Its inhabitants might say though that the most recent chapter in its history was written only last year, when the Tour de France passed through the village. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge dropped by in a helicopter to watch the riders hurtle down the hill from Masham, over the old bridge and on to Ripon. They took the time to walk through the village talking to as many people as they could. It’s a memory many locals treasure (I’m thinking of you, Penny!)
As you walk through the village yourself, you’ll notice a tower next to the 13th century parish church. That’s the Marmion Tower. It’s a 15th century gatehouse, and is all that is left of a vanished manor house that belonged to the Marmion family. As the direct line of this family ended, the succession passed first to the FitzHugh family, then the Parr family. You’ll have heard of them. William Parr was brother to Catherine, the sixth and last wife of King Henry VIII.
It took me till yesterday to go and explore the remains of this tower. It might look like a castle, but there’s no evidence that it was ever designed to offer real protection. There’s no portcullis to the gatehouse, no narrow windows through which to loose offensive arrows. It’s a three-storey tower, which provided accommodation of reasonable comfort for the time, though the extremely narrow twisting staircase is a bit of a challenge. Although large, the rooms are domestic in scale. They offer splendid views over the River Ure and the fields and woods beyond, and on one side, over the village itself. One of the windows is a beauty in its own right. It’s an oriel window – a kind of bay window – projecting from the first floor of the tower.
It’s ‘worth a detour’. And afterwards, you can go and sit in the gardens of the pub next door, the Bull, and relax over a drink in the picturesque surroundings of the river with the church and tower beyond.
‘I’ll bet’, ventured a friend the other week, ‘that the last few of those yellow bicycles don’t disappear from sight until round about Christmas’. I didn’t take her on. My own bet is that just a few of those yellow bikes, which so many people put outside their homes to celebrate the Tour de France in early July, will still be around many years from now . Most have gone of course.
Little by little, in the weeks after the Tour, the bunting came down, then those miles and miles of hand-knitted jerseys, then the yellow bikes. Now that Autumn winds are kicking in, all the bright yellow floral displays, often cascading from the panniers of those yellow bikes, are finally being grubbed up too.
As far as Harrogate was concerned, the Tour de France Swan Song took place last week, in the form of an exhibition mounted by the Harrogate Photographic Society, ‘Le Tour in Harrogate’. It took over the town. The ‘hub’ – a term borrowed from the Tour itself to indicate where the main action was to be found – was in the exhibition space of town centre Saint Peter’s Church. But there were satellite exhibits in a local café, an optician’s shop, and in the windows of a recently closed department store.
When we visited last Sunday, we found ourselves in company with dozens of others, poring over the images, sharing memories, exclaiming over forgotten moments of the preparations for the race in the days and weeks before, and its aftermath, as well as the days of the Race itself. There were pictures of old gnarled hands knitting away industriously to produce those yellow-jersey banners, of hi-viz-clothed teams of men road-mending late into the night beneath the glare of floodlights. Here were the gardeners making sure Harrogate’s famous floral displays were at their best, or French members of the huge Tour de France preparation team taking time out to link arms, laugh and pose for pictures. My favourite shot, taken on race-day itself was of two young men perched high on a chimney-stack looking down on the race far below them. And then there were the scenes of riders disappearing from view, only seconds after they’d first come into sight.
I’ve taken my own photos of the photos. Perhaps that’s a bit like the video which was said to have been offered for sale a few years ago by a dodgy salesman operating from a battered old suitcase at the corner of the market place. It was ‘Jurassic Park’, filmed in a darkened cinema on a hand-held camcorder. But these pictures shown here are just souvenirs. If you want to see these wonderful images in all their glory, you’ll have to contact the Photographic Society, who have produced a fully illustrated souvenir catalogue. We’ve ordered a copy.
I haven’t been able to credit individual images shown here as the photographers weren’t identified in this particular display. These aren’t however so much reproductions of their work as impressions. The photos themselves are well worth seeing in their original form.
Off to Harrogate today, via Knaresborough, which has just been voted Best Dressed Town ahead of the Tour de France. It’s done a fine job. The whole town is festooned with bunting: not the signature knitted-yellow-jersey bunting favoured all over the rest of the district, but hundreds upon hundreds of white T-shirts, decorated by the schoolchildren of the town. It all looks very festive, and combined with a yellow bike trail to send you bike-spotting down every street and in every shop window, it’s made for a fine community effort. I still have a soft spot for red-spotted Hawes however, which we visited last week. But Knaresborough’s Mayor has tricked out his house in red spots too.
Harrogate though. What a shock. We were diverted away from West Park Stray, and once we’d parked up, we discovered why. This usually car-filled thoroughfare was a pedestrian-only zone. No, that’s not true. There were no cars, but instead, huge articulated lorries, buses, media vehicles from all over Europe, Tour de France vehicles so large that no ordinary parking place could accommodate them. There was even an immense lorry whose purpose was to offer, at just the right moment, 3 rows of tiered seats for about 3 dozen spectators. All this circus came from the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Germany…. but above all, from France.
All around us, busy teams of workmen and women, technicians, electricians, craftspeople, media types rushed busily around, talking in the main in French. We spotted registration plates from Val-de-Marne; le Nord; Pas-de-Calais; even the Haute Garonne, the next door département to the Ariège. And suddenly, I was assailed by homesickness. It was just like being back in France. There was even a marquee filled with one particular team of workers sitting down together and sharing a midday meal. That really whisked us back. We wandered about, listening in, and engineering conversations with any French type taking a breather. England’s nice, we’re given to understand, but our motorways are a nightmare. We know.
But this immense team is only one of several. There are others in Leeds, in York, in Sheffield, Cambridge and London, the other five towns where the three English stages begin or end. I’d never previously understood quite what an industry the Tour de France really is.
Local teams from Harrogate itself had already uprooted many of the town’s pride and joy, its colourful flower-beds, in favour of providing viewing platforms for spectators who want to see the Race finish there on Day One. I expect it was the right decision. No self-respecting flowers could survive the expected onslaught, and the beds that remain look particularly magnificent.
When we’d looked around for a while, we nipped into a supermarket for some odds and ends we’d forgotten. This is what the fresh produce department looked like……….
Normal life has been suspended, for one weekend only.
I’m not fully adapted to country life yet. Forward planning – or lack of it – is my failing. I haven’t yet learned to anticipate whether we’ll need more milk, potatoes or whatever before the next planned trip to The Great Metropolis (aka Ripon), and quite often find myself grubbing around at the back of the cupboard for acceptable substitutes.
Saturday, though, is the day we treat ourselves and buy the paper. There’s enough reading material there to get us through several days, and the sports section, discarded immediately, is perfect for any number of little jobs such as lining the rubbish bin. And yet today we had no excuse to visit Ripon, so would we have to go without our newspaper?
Well, no, there is another solution, but we have to reckon on leaving the house for well over an hour to complete the three and a half mile walk. The round trip to the paper shop involves leaving home along the path through the woods, walking along the riverside path to Sleningford Mill caravan site, dallying by the weir for a few minutes, battling along the narrow path now surrounded by chest-high spring flowers, and finally reaching the bridge at West Tanfield.
The shop in the village is where you’ll find most things. There’s food, drink, first aid and stationery – and a Post Office. There’s a community board where today I found news of someone selling chilli plants – I’ll be buying some of those . And there are newspapers. I bought our weekly fix. Then I set off home by a different route. Out of the village on the road, up the hill, turn right at a farm gate. The path here’s been slightly diverted, because the farmer’s made wide beetle banks to boost the number of farmer-friendly insects and spiders on his land. Through several fields of sheep, who come to inspect me, and along the drive of Sleningford Park, a country house. A final yomp along paths running alongside fields of wheat and barley, and I’m home once more.
It wasn’t quick. But I came home refreshed by the birdsong I’d heard; the sight of birds, rabbits, squirrels and sheep I’d passed; the flowers I’d spotted on the paths, different already from the ones I’d spotted only a few days ago; and all those country smells, from wild garlic to sheep dung to spring flowers. I’d had a better morning, I reckoned, than if I’d either gone without, or jumped in the car to grab a newspaper at the petrol station four miles away.
When I was younger, I couldn’t be doing with formal displays in civic parks: the unwieldy floral clock, or the town’s name picked out in vividly orange French marigolds, or the little red begonias marching stiffly round a perfectly rectangular flowerbed. I felt sorry for the poor over-disciplined flowers and longed to release them to grow more freely under the trees.
These days, however, I quite enjoy the burst of colour that these formal displays offer as they welcome you into the park. I sense they aren’t quite the rigidly organised affairs of a few years back, and certainly they attract attention.
Yesterday, for instance, whilst in Ripon to do some jobs, Malcolm and I made a detour to idle away a little time in Ripon Spa Gardens, a really rather small park that’s a real oasis of relaxation very near the town centre.
There are those colourful beds to meander through. There’s some trunks of thinned out cypress trees which have been transformed into a celebration of Alice ‘s Adventures in Wonderland. This is where grandparents stop to reminisce about this classic of childhood, whilst their grandchildren make it into an impromptu climbing frame. The Ripon connection with ‘Alice’ is that Dodgson was at one time Canon-in-Residence at the Cathedral here.
There are trees fringing the edges of the park, making it seem larger and more extensive than it really is. There’s crazy golf, and a bowling green. There’s a bandstand. And best of all, there is a café.
I was resistant to calling in for a cup of tea. Cafés in parks are often dismal affairs, lowest-common-factor places offering indifferent tea, cheap fizzy drinks and industrial biscuits. But Malcolm was correct in insisting we try it out. He rightly pointed out that a café with this wonderfully quirky bicycle parked outside, sporting knitted versions of everything on the café‘s menu couldn’t be all bad.
In fact it’s all good. The Sun Parlour Café is cheerily decorated in yellow, and already anticipating le Tour de France’s visit to Yorkshire by having lines of tiny knitted jerseys strung at every window.
There’s a choice of a dozen or more home-made cakes or biscuits (coffee and walnut for Malcolm please, orange-and-lemon for me), and freshly baked scones all at unbeatable prices.
Every day they offer a roast dinner and hot pudding with a drink for an excellent value £9.00. It’s run by a lively and welcoming woman who answers to the name of ‘Lefty’ (‘My surname was Wright before I married’, she explained). She clearly has regular customers. She’s just acquired two more.
Ripon’s living up to expectations. We’ve now added the Spa Gardens to its list of attractions.