A bike across the sea - by Stephen Dyster


The miners’ lamp dispels the shadows on the

coalface. It can also send a ray of light across the

sea to those who struggle in darkness.

(Barnett Stross, 1942)

 

There are sports with rules. Cycle sport has a lot, some of which would baffle Aristotle. Cycle touring, on the other hand, is anarchic. No, tourers don't make up the rules of the road; but cycle-touring can be what you want it to be.

Don't take that to mean cycle-tourers can't go fast or cover long distances; just to say that if you want to ride a few miles a day and eat your bike's weight in cake there is no-one to tell you that you aren't achieving your personal best (except in the Victoria sponge category).

Setting off...

Setting off...

Perhaps cycle-touring is not a sport? It can certainly be a strenuous physical activity. For me, the rhythm of daily cycling, living on what can be carried, and needing to think of nothing but turning the pedals is pure pleasure. Yet, for inspiration a theme to a tour helps.

In 2014 - and I'm not a native of the Potteries - I first became aware that when the the Czech village of Lidice was destroyed and almost all its inhabitants murdered by the Nazis in 1942, the cry "Lidice Shall Live!" was first raised by Shelton GP and City Councillor Barnett Stross and echoed by the people of Stoke-on-Trent. It was largely down to their generosity and spirit that a new village was built, with memorials, an art gallery and the world's largest rose garden.

Lidice became the destination of choice when opportunity allowed. Redundancy loomed and after seven years of promoting cycling in Stoke-on-Trent schools, the chance to pedal away arrived. Must thank the family; and pay tribute to Alan and Cheryl Gerrard who, with the Friends of Barnett Stross, are doing so much to rejuvenate links between Stoke-on-Trent and the Czech Republic.

If where to go is question one, the second and third are where to start and how long to go for. Things snow-balled; an interview on Czech radio led to invitations to cycle further; Stoke artist Harry Davies offered a watercolour to take as a gift; my cycling colleague, Mark Dally, created an exuberant sculpture. Added spice on the cobbled roads of old East Germany; would it arrive in one piece?

We decided to set off from home, but to go via the "official" start of the tour in Burslem, at the memorial to the fifty-seven miners who died following an explosion at Sneyd Colliery on New Year's Day, 1942. It was amongst the North Staffordshire Mineworkers that Stross found strong support for the Colliers, steelworkers and farmers of Lidice - and their families - who had been arbitrarily murdered or imprisoned in revenge for the assassination of Hitler's golden-boy, Reinhard Heydrich.

The "we" in question were myself and Mark Dally, a ceramic artist based in Stone with wonderful creative talent in design and decoration. He had created a witty, joyous, playful sculpture celebrating the triumph of pugnacious right over wrong. An utter contrast to the painting Harry Davies had given me to take; a truly challenging image that I stared at for ages and saw more every second I looked; an image depicting the sad, terrified, hopelessness and resignation of those awaiting death.

At the official start in Burslem: Mark, Cheryl Gerrard, Steve, Alan Gerrard

At the official start in Burslem: Mark, Cheryl Gerrard, Steve, Alan Gerrard

When you start a long journey from your front door the first part of the route is in familiar surroundings. You know the way to go and you are aware of the hills. If familiarity has bred complacency, you may realise later on just how beautiful your home area is. Crossing the plain that lay across our route from Rotterdam to a little way short of Detmold (three and a half-days of riding), one couldn't but feel that the Staffordshire Moorlands had been wonderful riding despite the occasional steep climb. Where the route suddenly reared up cobbled streets and forest tracks over the Tonberg, before a massive descent, on more forest tracks and, thankfully, roads, to Detmold, the longing for our Moorlands was replaced by an affection for the Netherlands.

Of course, there comes a point when, however thoroughly one has researched in the virtual world, all becomes new; customs, language, road behaviour, expected surfaces, sights and sounds, and more. If you are used to cycling alone or only day cycling with others, the close proximity to someone else twenty-four hours a day, will be new, too.

Back-roads near the Dutch-German border

Back-roads near the Dutch-German border

You share the ride, meals, rooms. You share decisions, you feel frustration - especially when the weather is bad or the going gets tough. One might blame the other and it is a risk for one to insist they are right - just in case they are wrong! Joint decisions and a bit of tolerance go a long way. For example, accepting Mark's obviously unfounded opinion that he was Jack Benny to my Walter Matthau in the Cycling Odd Couple, was little to sacrifice for the different perspective a second pair of eyes brings. One stops for new things and asks new questions and together double the route finding ability ..... or multiply the impact of going astray.

To aid our map work we employed, every now and again, various bits of technology. A Garmin Edge GPS helped out, especially in cities, but seemed to have a liking for dense forest in spite of the "road" filter. Google maps aided every now and again. Cycle route and road signs collaborated with us .... mostly. You see, you have to combine what is left of one's brain-power with that of your cycling-companion - no matter how misguided any of them might be.

And there are benefits to getting lost, even in the rain, even when all you really want is to reach your destination and tuck into a couple of beers and a plateful of schnitzel and sauerkraut, or a healthy and tasty salad. How you can cycle miles on lettuce is a mystery to one, but is, from another point of view, less likely to contribute to a coronary half-way up the next hill.

The day we made a serendipitous discovery was a wet one. The rain began at the ancient German city of Goslar, as we skirted the darkly forested northern flanks of the Harz Mountains. We'd crossed into the old East Germany and things were changing. Though the villages had the same old-architecture, there were no vibrant colours; industry was more run down or closed; roads were mostly good, but longer cobbled sections intervened between the asphalt. Above all the cycling infrastructure - and this remained the case - was less developed and more poorly surfaced, with the exception of cycle-paths along the major rivers.

In witch country!

In witch country!

By the time we'd reached Langenstein, we were more than ready to stick to the shortest road route to nearby Quedlinburg and our hostel for the night. We looked at the map and there was no direct road without huge diversions. The cycle route seemed to disappear in the wrong direction. We asked. Many Germans speak English, but, the older generation in the east learned Russian as a second language at school. Even so, one indicated via the GPS on his phone that we could follow a road to the north. Others said the only way was along a motorway; out of the question for cyclists.

We should have known that the road would come to a dead halt a couple of miles on. We followed the track to the right and in a few metres found ourselves amongst the sparse remains of a concentration camp. We hoped to find a way through. As the rain tumbled down we stood at the memorial, grimmer than the weather, with the names of some of the victims on plaques around a vast area of rubble marking the ruin of humanity. This had been but a satellite camp for the much larger one at Buchenwald.

We set back to the village feeling less depressed about our wet feet.

Asking again we decided to take the cycle route. Once it may have been neatly made with setts of stone placed in order by a skilled team of road-builders. Now the cobbles had argued violently with each other, standing on end, twisted to the side, like some peculiar irregular crystal. Discomfort ceased when a mud and puddle surface took over. At Westerhausen, asphalt returned; then beautiful smooth asphalt all the way to the inevitable town centre cobbles amongst the timber-framed houses and spiders-web of streets that makes up the old town in Quedlinburg.

The youth hostel in Quedlinburg

The youth hostel in Quedlinburg

We filled in the inevitable forms at the hostel, attempting not to drip water over the friendly but thorough Warden. She put us in Room 101. Fortunately we emerged safely to resume the tour next morning.

Heading further east our aim was to pick up the River Saale to follow it to Halle-an-der-Saale and then to head across country to the north of Leipzig aiming for the great River Elbe. Rattling over cobbles and crazy-paving, rolling along newly-laid asphalt, wiggling off and on course, sometimes on signed routes, sometimes making it up ourselves. Signage on cycle routes deteriorated; map, compass and road signs took over: how old school.

A bit of rough stuff...

A bit of rough stuff...

One German cycle-tourer told us that there was no significant riverside city in Germany that could not be ridden through alongside or close to the water. River valley routes are attractive to riders of all ages. In the Netherlands hordes of senior tourers could be found; along the Weser, the Saale and the Elbe - especially the Elbe - the stream of cyclists had returned.

We took advantage of the investment that is rebuilding the local economy with a tourist base; that is good cycle-paths. Good surfaces bring cyclists with big thirsts and healthy appetites who want somewhere to sleep. Families, senior groups, young couples - even middle-aged Englishmen - are good for business. And did some of the towns and villages need it. Cycle-touring shows all; it exposes you to the beautiful and the grimy. 

Rothenburg-an-der-Saale, set in a wooded gorge, with mighty sluices holding back the river (already the size of the Trent at Gainsborough) should be a beauty spot. Instead there are old factories and a few tenements, so run down that it is not clear if anyone lives or works there.

A little further on is Wettin, where we sheltered from a thunderstorm. Yes, this enabled Mark to say that in Wettin we got a wetting. If you have any doubt that cycle-touring is an inspiring pastime, let that set your mind at rest. High above the town, the houses clustered round its base, stands the great fortress of the Dukes of Saxony, one of many stunning reminders that Germany has a long history before 1933.

Part of the post-1933 history was the bombing of. Dresden in February 1945. Arriving in the city after a long ride along the banks of the Elbe, a ride full of meadows, passing boats, ever-present storks and the ceramic city of Meissen, we'd already had an historic encounter. 

Approaching the River Elbe

Approaching the River Elbe

The scaffold-shrouded Albrechtsburg that looms large over Meissen's riverside cycleway, shelters amongst other things an Aldi supermarket. Mark had popped in to buy the picnic lunch. Cycling on for a few kilometres a bench appeared. As we sat down, a man of some seven decades of age came across and began a one-sided conversation in German. Realising the hopelessness of this method, he resorted to sweeping motions and gestures towards the wrapping of our food. Satisfied by our verbal reassurances, reinforced by gestures towards our rubbish bag, he bravely returned to language.

He spoke no English, but we were able to exchange names. He explained that Germans today learn English in school, but that in his youth everyone was taught Russian. He was not impressed by that. Russian was, "No good."

Chatting with people is made easy by the bike. Cyclists naturally converse; non-cyclists are often curious, too. "How come you ended up here?" crops up in conversation surprisingly often. I don't get tired of being asked.

Dresden was a marker on our route. Building in a rest half-day, was really important; breaking up the daily pedalling. Famous for its extravagant collection of baroque palaces and churches, mostly rebuilt after the firestorm that destroyed much of the city, there is too much to see in half a day. We decided against a city tour on a seven-seater conference bike, opting for a wander round the Residenz, a stroll in the streets around the main square and an ascent to the dome of the Frauenkirche. The views from the viewing platform took in much of our approach to the city along the river that flowed to the distant northern horizon. To the south, out of sight, but the second reason why this was a marker on our journey, were the woods that close in as the Elbe enters a gorge through the mountains of Swiss Saxony - to the border between Germany and the Czech Republic. Cycle touring is about more than riding a bike.

Dresden - looking back north from the Frauenkirche

Dresden - looking back north from the Frauenkirche

Riding along well-laid paths by the river should not be taken for granted. The occasional ferry crossing was necessary; diversions allowing repair or construction of cycle routes were required. The lines of cyclists queueing to embark or disembarking should inspire anyone who likes riding a bike; anyone can travel and explore this way. There was little sign of Lycra; cadence was steadily purposeful, some wore cycling specific clothes, but many just comfortable everyday gear. Helmets? Some wore them, but not many. Relax and roll with the flow. Only an occasional racer or pair of middle-aged Englishmen seemed to go faster.

Typical ferry en route - doing good business from the hordes of cyclists

Typical ferry en route - doing good business from the hordes of cyclists

Having crossed the Elbe following a diversion, we ignored the next ferry back to the west bank, following cycle route signs. Understand that a cycle route is a signed way to go; there is no guarantee of a good surface. We were not on mountain bikes; had we been we would still have had a good deal of hike-a-bike to do. A climb over a spur on muddy rock-strewn tracks, saps the spirit if you are not careful. We re-crossed the river at the next opportunity and when a further diversion suggested crossing the river we ignored it. The workmen on the route seemed not in the least perturbed as we rolled past.

It seems a little strange that, on a ride to a Czech village, most miles were in Germany. It was twenty-six years ago that Germany was re-united. Prosperous West Germany took on its eastern sibling. We had expected that the gaping chasm in living standards would have disappeared. There has been a rapid narrowing, but differences were still clear. Amongst these, first noticed along the banks of the Saale, then along the Elbe and, of a more permanent nature, along the Jihlava in the Czech Republic, were areas of prefab bungalow-like shanties surrounded by gardens. Some were kempt and well-built, others abandoned. We found the answer to what these were when retrieving our laundry from a friend's parents who had - it's a long story - offered to do it for us.

His Dad was a keen gardener and, like many people in even small towns in the area, lived in a tenement block; window box but no garden. Add to this restrictions on travel during the Soviet era, and a little pied-a-terre in the country - maybe as part of a garden club - offered escape from urban life.

Travel really does broaden the mind and there is no better way to see a country than to cycle across it. There is time to see and sufficient mileage to see a lot. Yep, cycling is good for mind and body and environment, but mostly it is fun.

On a multi-day trip, the day on which you will reach your destination arrives after stealthily creeping up for days. It did not really dawn on me until, just across the Elbe, a bright pink house stood at the black pillars of eroded rock between which flowed a tributary of the main river. Close by, a couple of shed-like buildings seemed to doing good business. That was Hrensko - on the border between Germany and the Czech Republic. Or rather, it was only on the east bank. On our side of the river the metal posts marking, for us, an historic moment some two kilometres further on, felt a little modest. The red, white and blue of the Czech national flag greeted us without fuss.

Ten kilometres, at Decin, we had our first opportunity to stutter some halting Czech - followed by a sigh of relief that the receptionist at the Hotel Ceske Koruna spoke embarrassingly perfect English. The barmaid and waitress at the Retro Bar didn't, but with a mix of audacious attempts at almost vowel-less words mixed with noteworthy mental agility on the part of the waitress, we got tasty food and beer. Washing down the Svickova with Staropramen only to be stunned at how cheap it all was. Outside of central Prague, prices were very low by comparison to the UK. Beer was always the cheapest drink on the menu - not that it should be combined too freely with cycling.

So with the help of excellent beer and good food, and in spite the morning rain, we set off - after a breakfast without beer - on a trip along the Labe (the Czech equivalent of the German Elbe) on the last leg. Following the river took in a forested gorge, past busy industrial towns .... pretty parks, massive sluice gates and locks: the whole caboodle of a country still recovering from years of Soviet control.

Even with all the wonders of Czech history - though for long periods of the past under control of others, Bohemia and Moravia have long held on to a national identity - one remains British. Despite the many miles of the excellent cycle track, it is the two miles of filthy mud-bound track soaked by pouring rain and churned deeply by farm vehicles, that sticks in the mind (not to mention to the brakes, the spokes and under the mudguards). A Czech angler did his best to persuade us that we were mad, but we ploughed on.

Then it finished. We turned over the bridge at Roudnice nad Labem and left the river we had first met three days before, a little way north of Strehla. We had followed it through Dresden and the border hills, crossing and re-crossing on the frequent ferries. If you do not think you could tour on a bike, try the Elbe. There no bounds of age, gender, or flashy gear apply; everyone mixes in and does it as they please, whether they are going from the source to Hamburg or Dresden to Prague. And, maybe one day, that horrid quagmire of a couple of miles will be removed from memory - seriously, that was less than one per cent of the route!

Drying wet gear... .

Drying wet gear....

A headwind had blown-in. The hills began to roll away from the river. Farming country, with occasional towns and villages off the beaten track. A mixture of people and places very different to the industry and tourism we had become familiar with during our riverside run. As The end of "the quest" drew nigh, signs of old industry began to appear. Steel-making and coal-mining had been prominent; there is a mining museum in Kladno, the nearest town to Lidice.

The road signs began to bear familiar names, names we had become familiar with from the tragedy of seventy-four years ago. Kladno, Bustehrad, and others, homes of workmates who warned the Lidice men not to go back to their village after the night shift on that fateful morning. The Lidice men said farewell, gave their bicycles to their friends and walked slowly back home to dutifully share the fate of their families.

And when I think of that and look at the kind, encouraging comments on Facebook or the smiles of admiration from the gentler tourers on the Weser, the Saale and the Elbe that make a cycle ride seem heroic; all we had done was to turn our pedals.

Bustehrad brought a final climb, a sudden left turn and a steep, curved cobbled street. The bar looked run down but a half-abandoned level-crossing proved to be in use as a venerable diesel rumbled over it. That was the final delay. After over a thousand miles of cycling, there was a sign for Lidice, a village sign, a sign for the art gallery, a quick run between neat new houses by an avenue of trees. Then, with a pull on the brakes, we were there.

No cheering crowds greet most touring cyclists - though one or two have managed to infiltrate major races and have been cheered accordingly; the achievement and the pleasure is your own. Let's face it, if you tell some folk that you have just completed a cycle ride of one thousand and forty-seven miles, you may get a well-done, but many will wonder why you bothered. Was there not a bus, a plane, a train? Have you not got a car? Don't worry, you will know.

We were made welcome by the staff at the Lidice Gallery, who showed us the comfortable rooms in the hostel and brought buckets of warm water and cloths to clean our bikes. A little line of shops lay between the hostel door and the gallery. There is also a bar and restaurant. Needless to say, we celebrated with a three course dinner, several beers and a local liqueur or two. OK, not exactly the athletes diet, but you'd be surprised what and how much some big name racers get through after a race. True, they go faster and longer, but they do not have to cart their own gear around.

We arranged to present the artworks to the Director on Saturday morning. After that we had a day without cycling. There is not going to be a description of the Lidice memorials or the emotions they stir. Suffice it to say that the former are poignant and the latter strong.

But there is a post-script. Some cyclists are members of www.warmshowers.org , a worldwide network of touring cyclists who offer to host fellow cycle travellers. We were lucky to be hosted for two nights whilst in the Czech Republic. Firstly by a Slovakian lady and, secondly, by a family who  had just returned from cycling in New Zealand. You get to share great stories and the occasional beer, get helpful local advice and all for the price of reciprocating to like-minded people.

In the weeks before we left - remember our aim was to raise awareness of the Lidice Shall Live campaign in Stoke-on-Trent - we had been contacted by Milan Krcmar, who had heard our plan on Czech National Radio. Milan works at a rather fabulous alternative technology centre, but, in his spare time supports a little museum in Dolni Vilemovice near his home town of Trebic.

The community museum opened a couple of years ago. Money was raised to buy and regenerate an old house. This building was the family home of one Jan Kubis. Kubis became an officer in the Czech army, fled to Britain via Poland and France after Czechoslovakia was invaded in spring 1939. In 1942 he volunteered to return to Prague, with his friend and fellow officer, Josef Gabcik, to assassinate the Nazi Governor of the Protectorate of Bohemia, Reinhard Heydrich. They successfully completed the mission, but were surrounded in a church crypt and died in the ensuing shoot-out.

At the Jan Kubis memorial: Steve, Milan Krcmar, Mark

At the Jan Kubis memorial: Steve, Milan Krcmar, Mark

To raise awareness of the museum and to help raise funds, Milan - you have guessed it - cycled from Dolni Vilemovice to Bayswater Road, London, where the operation to assassinate Heydrich was hatched. 

Cycling to Trebic, to meet Milan, took two days. The first started off very hot and finished very, very wet. We quickly realised that Czech "cycle route" still did not equate to "cycle path” any more than its counterparts elsewhere. Deciding to make progress more rapid, we chose to stick to roads. After several miles we reached Kutna Hora, an old town well-worth revisiting. Then the word "road" took on a new meaning. Unsurfaced and crossed by fords - one of which dumped Mark into the water right in front of a group of Czech children who learned a few words of English that would not feature in English language lessons.

By then thunderous clouds had filled the sky across our route towards Havlickuv Brod. We arrived drenched and pretty fed-up, only to continue in steady rain the next day. We took the main road to Jihlava, where we planned to pick up a riverside cycle route to Trebic. Though some sections were very, very good, some sections were unclear and badly surfaced. It seemed that someone occasionally pointed a cycle sign up an old forest track or left one to guess. Overall good, but room for improvements - which are already underway.

The main issue was that although the map seemed to indicate a river valley route, it was one that swung to the valley top and dropped to the valley bottom with tiring regularity Here, in the heart of the Bohemian-Moravian Highlands, such vigorous swings made for tough leg-work.

Getting completely lost after cycling through a field (an act that might sound perverse, but is the sort of thing one has to do every now and again in the Czech Republic), a kind man who spoke no English but was handy with a map, directed us along an overgrown track that he assured us would lead to a road with a good surface. It did. Sticking to the map, we wound past some red-roofed farms and villages surrounded by pastures and forest as we climbed. Then Trebic appeared far below.

The town has two UNESCO World Heritage sites; its basilica and its old Jewish Quarter. Another place to revisit. The next day, after our trip to the Kubis House (a short distance, but a good climb from Trebic) where we were treated to cakes and coffee, the weather was getting hot. Too hot. So, we decided that train back to Prague via Brno would be the wisest choice. The next day the temperature reached thirty-five as we joined the crowds of the Charles Bridge. 

All that followed was to get home. Getting bikes on planes can be a bit of an adventure in itself. That Saturday morning it went without a hitch. So did the train journey from Stansted to Stone. In twelve hours we covered what had taken thirteen days by bike. That's cycling for you!

Provisions to go...

Provisions to go...