The Full English, Mike Carden (2007)

An eighteen-day ride from Dorset to Northumbria undertaken in 2006, entertainingly recounted with a distinctive sense of humour

Bike Ride Books 9780955660207 paperback 224pp £8.99

At one point during his ride, Carden notes that most of the other long-distance cyclists he meets, or sleeps beside him in Youth Hostels, are middle-aged men apparently in search of something that is not marked on maps. It is an interesting reflection, and not one, sadly, that he develops.

The strengths of this book do, however, offer some clues as to the impulse that propels so many of advancing years to criss cross the country on two wheels. By his own admission, Carden is not much of a cyclist. Thirty or forty miles a day stretches him to his limit¸ and he is quick to spot ‘real’ cyclists as he passes them on the road.

Nor would he win prizes as an observer of contemporary England. No date is given for the ride (2006 is my guess), but his interests are such, that it matters very little. Carden’s best quality is his eye for the historically significant in his encounters and his ability to weave tales into the tapestry of our national story. His historical digressions are also as accessible as they are enjoyable. From the sacking on the monasteries, to the industrial revolution, he finds, and ties together evidence of the forces that shaped our country. It was enough be have me yearning to go out on a voyage of discovery of my own.

Here he is in Middleham in North Yorkshire.

“What the village hid was it history. Behind the small market square stood the ruins of one of the great castles of medieval England. In its day it was magnificent. The artist’s impressions on the postcards in the ticket office showed a castle resembling the Tower of London. Tall, stately and strong. High outer walls surrounding a large central keep, laid out with halls and staterooms for its owners the Neville family, and specifically in the 15th century, the Earl of Warwick.”

All of which you could, of course, find in a guide book, but Carden deploys a laudably light touch as he picks up and pulls together these historical threads. Indeed, the book may act as a spur to explore rather more English history for many readers.

Perhaps it is for a sense of pulling together strands that these greying knights of the road are questing. With the onset of middle age, most of us recognise our mortality and are possibly searching for some kind of narrative that connects our mass of experience? Carden could not claim to provide that in a single, easily uploaded travelogue. The routemap that he sketches does, however, provide enough ideas to give others a starting point for their own explorations.

PS Dec 09

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