Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Tall Ships

I took advantage of the improving weather today and rode into Belfast to check out the new pedestrian/cycle bridge at the Lagan Weir.  The media were just dispersing and the bridge was open, so I used it for the first time to go to the Dock Cafe for a cup of coffee.  As I cycled down past the Odyssey Arena I was confronted by the first of the tall ships with two oil rigs in the distance at Harland and Wolff for repair.  It is unusual to see three oil rigs in the shipyard at one time as there is another over by the twin cranes Samson and Goliath.  

I took a few photos of the 'Morgenster' before the crowds arrive for the 'Tall Ships' event in Belfast from Thursday 2nd July until Saturday 5th July.  I then went to the Dock Cafe for my cup of coffee.  It is a popular spot with cyclists and the food is good.  

After enjoying my cup of coffee, I cycled down Queens Road to the entrance of the Harland & Wolff Repair Yard.  I took a few photographs of the two oil rigs before retracing my steps.  I could see the masts and rigging of another tall ship on the opposite side of the harbour.  I cycled back over the River Lagan and followed the NCN cycle route out through Clarendon Dock up to Duncrue Street where I turned into the Belfast Harbour Estate and right onto Northern Road. I followed the road round to the road junction at the Harbour exit where I turned left onto Dufferin Road.  I could see the tall ship berthed in Pollock Dock. 

I enjoyed the run today despite the breeze.  I had a tailwind home so it was a comfortable spin back.  There was another tall ship in Belfast Lough off the County Down coast about Bangor obviously en-route to the harbour.  It was nice to see the first of the ships which have arrived.  The event looks set to draw the crowds.

Monday, 29 June 2015

HMS Caroline

Belfast underwent a significant increase in shipbuilding activity during the 19th century with the change from traditional wooden ships to hulls made from iron and later steel. There were 3 shipyards on the River Lagan up until the end of the 19th century when it reduced to 2, Workman Clark and Harland & Wolff. During World War I German U Boats operated in British and Irish waters. The Royal Naval Air Service operated airships from Bentra near Whitehead. The Royal Navy maintained a presence in Belfast and HMS Caroline was moved to Belfast to serve as a depot ship for the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve from 1924 after she was decommissioned and placed in Reserve from 1922.

HMS Caroline was built by Cammell Laird, Birkenhead, her keel being laid down in January 1914 and launched on 29th September 1914 for fitting out. She was completed in December 1914 and was commissioned into service on 4th December 1914. HMS Caroline was one of a number of C Class Light Cruisers and she was to serve as part of the Royal Navy's Grand Fleet based at Scapa Flow and spend her war service patrolling the North Sea. HMS Caroline saw action against the German Imperial Fleet at the Battle of Jutland in 1916. In 1919 after the conclusion of hostilities, HMS Caroline was moved out to the East Indies Station where she finished her active service. After moving to Belfast in 1924, she went to Harland & Wolff shipyard to have her boilers and armament removed for her continued service as a depot ship for the R.N.V.R.  HMS Caroline was returned to Royal Naval active service during World War II serving as the headquarters for the Royal Navy in Belfast. As the war progressed the role and function of the Royal Navy expanded and premises were requisitioned around the harbour and city for naval use. A lot of the ratings wore HMS Caroline hat tallies although not actually based on board. After the conclusion of hostilities HMS Caroline again reverted to her peacetime role as a depot ship for the R.N.V.R. HMS Caroline was given a refit at Harland & Wolff shipyard in 1951. She continued as a depot ship until 2009 when the R.N.V.R. moved ashore and was finally decommissioned out of service in 2011. Her ensign was laid up in Belfast's St. Anne's Cathedral.

At that point the future of HMS Caroline was uncertain as the second oldest Royal Naval warship. Proposals were made to move her to Portsmouth and in 2012 initial funding of £1 million was secured from the National Lottery Heritage Fund towards restoration and the announcement that she was to stay in Belfast. In October 2014 an announcement about a further £12 million towards the restoration of the ship with the planned opening of the ship as a museum in time for the centenary of the Battle of Jutland on May 31st 2016. Restoration work is ongoing with the teak deck planking having been lifted. Paint analysis of the ship has revealed 38 different shades of grey used on the ship during her service. The new information has enabled experts to determine her colour during different periods of her service and determine the exact shade she was painted during World War I.

HMS Caroline is currently berthed in the Alexandra Dock behind the Titanic Film studios where 'Game of Thrones' is filmed. It is easily reached by bicycle. As part of the plans to turn her into a floating museum, the nearby old Harland & Wolff historic Titanic Pump House is to be turned into a visitor centre for the ship. As restoration work is ongoing the ship is not yet open to the public but she can still be seen from the security fencing. For anyone interested in maritime history she will be well worth a visit, alongside the White Star Line tender for the RMS Titanic, SS Nomadic and the Titanic visitor centre.

Monday, 8 June 2015

A Bit of a Breeze?

The course of life doesn't always run smooth and circumstances can conspire to disturb the settled routine of daily life. This is what has happened with my cycling, not by choice, I might add. So the opportunity to have some 'bike time' awheel with friends, was too good an opportunity to pass up. The date and venue were agreed by phone for the following Saturday as the weather forecast seemed to hint at improving weather. The weather only improved marginally over the unseasonally cold, wet weather, with strong wind and showers on the day in question. 

I chose to ride to Central Railway Station, Belfast as the other riders were all arriving by train. The journey into Belfast was uneventful apart from the grind into the headwind and a heavy rain shower as rode past the Harbour Estate. Despite the headwind I arrived 10 mins before the agreed meet up time. I preferred to spin a low gear into the headwind rather than push a much higher gear. Retaining the ability to spin and stay on top of the gear meant I would tire much less quickly during the ride. 

Meeting up with the other riders was firstly a chance to admire the various bicycles and secondly to catch up with friends. After the initial pleasantries, our ride leader explained the route would take us through busy traffic for approximately one mile along the busy A20 route Albertbridge Road, onto the Newtownards Road at Holywood Arches, where we would pick up the Comber Greenway route out to Comber.  After a gap of around 35 years since cycling these same roads, the volume and density of motor traffic has increased enormously, along with changes to road signage, road junction layout and traffic control. 

The one thing which struck me immediately was the vehicle fumes. This of course diminished once we entered onto the Comber Greenway which follows the route of the old Belfast & County Down Railway main line (closed in 1950) out of Belfast. It crosses a number of main roads, the crossings being controlled by traffic lights, but then quickly takes the rider away from the hubbub of urban traffic. The route was fairly well used by cyclists, from groups of mamils, (middle-aged men in lycra) groups of women cyclists, kids on bikes, through to youngsters taking tentative steps on their bikes with dad. The strong wind was not proving to be much of a deterrent to many folk. The Comber Greenway is also used by dog walkers and joggers too, so it is a shared space, not solely for cyclists. 

I found the route pleasant and following the former railway track bed the gradient does not rise sharply except where a road has to be crossed and the former railway bridges have long since been demolished. However there are no steep climbs on the route, so the nervous can rest easy. I personally found as a relatively unfit rider after a prolonged lay off I didn't have to change out of the comfortable gear I was spinning once despite the wind. It was a pleasant run out to Comber and the weather was kind without any heavy rain showers.

The Greenway comes out on the Comber Bypass probably where the old Comber railway station had been. I was immediately aware again of vehicle fumes from the busy road. Our route followed the Comber Bypass to a roundabout where we turned right and proceeded along the road for a short distance before taking a road to the left marked as a part of the National Cycle Network (Route 99) for Castle Espie Wildfowl and Wetland Trust

This was to be our lunch stop as our ride leader assured us they have a great cafe and you get 15% discount off your meal bill if you cycle there. It was my first visit and I was impressed by the vistors centre and cafe. There are fine views out over Strangford Lough and of Scrabo Tower from the cafe. The food was good as well. There are plenty of bike parking racks at the visitor centre which was nice to see. Plans for the next ride were made over lunch and bicycle topics discussed. 

The return was made to Belfast after lunch which was mostly into the wind. The journey became interesting once back in Belfast on roads with traffic. The wind was being funnelled between the buildings and the blast of wind as I crossed the mouth of one or two of the side streets blew the bike out into the centre of the carriageway despite my best efforts. Apart from this, return was made to Central Station in good time for the others to catch their various trains. 

After bidding our farewells, I resumed my journey by bike. There was a stand of bicycles for the new Belfast Bike Hire Scheme at Central Station but there were too many cars and taxis dropping off and collecting people to take any photographs. I stopped at the much quieter bike stand outside the Belfast Harbour Commissioner's Offices to take a photograph of the new bike hire scheme. Only one bicycle had been removed from the stand of bikes. I continued the final part of my run, thankful that it was at least a tailwind back.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

A sideways glance

I don't know how much thought you give to the environment you are cycling through. Perhaps if it is for the first time, your senses and interest are piqued and you take more of your surroundings in. Cycling through the same environment on a regular basis, whether transiting through, to get to an area you wish to ride in, or just using your bicycle as transport to get from A to B, the familiar just blurs into the background. It is after an absence of decades and the many changes wrought to the landscape in the intervening years, that you begin to notice the landscape again, this time seeking the familiar in all the many changes. This is how I found myself in the urban landscape of summer, enjoying riding my bicycle in Belfast. I fondly remember the school visit to the Harland and Wolff shipyard as part of my Engineering Drawing studies decades ago. A guided tour through the yard to see the erecting shops, foundry and the dock under the giant cranes 'Goliath' and 'Samson' where the sections of ship's hull were transported to be welded into position, the quayside from which the hulls were moored for fitting out. Several bulk oil carriers, christened 'Supertankers' at the time, were under construction. Shipbuilding on such a scale is now only a fading memory. I was intrigued to see how much of Belfast's maritime past still exists. 

Riding along Duncrue Street towards Belfast city centre from the direction of Fortwilliam you pass through much of the old dock area. The old N.C.C. concrete railway gate posts mark where railway lines once entered the docks. The wooden gates have long gone, now replaced with steel fencing. Much of the old port has gone, due, in part, to the migration of the port towards the deeper water of the Victoria Channel, Belfast Lough, the containerisation of cargo and increasing size of modern vessels. This has moved the port away from the city centre. The once familiar quays, warehouse and grain stores have gone, demolished and replaced by modern office blocks. 

The development known as Clarendon Dock at the bottom of Princes Dock St and can be accessed as part of NCN 91/9. Cheek by jowl with the little square as you enter the gate is the Rotterdam Bar. 

This tiny bit of old Belfast is is very much down at heel, but is mentioned by the author Eric Newby in his 1956 book 'The Last Grain Race', published by Secker & Warburg Ltd, about his 1938 voyage on the Gustav Erikson owned S.V. Moshulu. The crew went to the Rotterdam Bar for a 'liddle trink' to say goodbye to the crewmen returning to Moshulu's home port of Mariehamn, Finland. There are some photographs of the old port of Belfast taken in 1938 by Eric Newby which were published in his 1999 book, 'Learning the Ropes: An Apprentice in the last of the Windjammers'. The Moshulu sailed from Belfast on 18th October 1938 just after the Munich Crisis of the month previous and harbinger of the impending world war. 
Further along the route are the twin graving docks of Clarendon Dock and then the Belfast Harbour Commissioners Offices. The route then rejoins the road, past the Royal Mail sorting Office at Tomb Street, before continuing towards the substantial Custom House. 

The back of the building faces the River Lagan and the front steps have been a meeting place for demonstration and protest for over a century. The Custom House Square is now used each year for an open air pop music festival. As you continue towards the Queen's Bridge the premises of James Tedford, Ship Chandlers, Sail and Tent Makers,  is located on the right hand side. 
The sail loft was located at the top of the building, parts of which is believed to date back to the 18th century. The business is one of the last long established Ship Chandlers in existence in the UK and Ireland and in 1991 vacated the building to move to a new premises. The original building is now an up-market restaurant. The community of Dockers who worked in the port, lived in the terraced streets off Corporation Street. The area was known as 'Sailortown' and has largely gone in the re-development of Belfast. The old terraced housing, the hard graft, uncertain pay, of the stevedore was not mourned by many, but rather the break up and loss of the small, self reliant, tight knit community forged in adversity has been a source of regret. Such is the march of 'progress'. Time and tide wait for no man.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Are cycle paths necessarily a good thing?

Are cycle paths really a good thing? The reason I pose this question is based on a recent experience. In my misguided and limited understanding of the National Cycle Network, I believed that the development of cycle routes and the work by the Sustrans charity was a good thing. I have to confess that most of my experience of riding some of the Sustrans routes has been in the countryside, not in a urban environment. I had occasion to use part of NCN9/91 from Whiteabbey to Belfast over the summer. The problem for me, was that part of the cycle route uses a footpath into Belfast. The idea behind the development of cycle routes seems to be to encourage more people to cycle, by moving bicycles off busy roads onto quieter byways and out of potential conflict with motor vehicles. A laudable notion, but as worked out on the ground in local areas, does this represent best practice acting in the best interests for cyclists? In this instance, by moving cyclists off the public highway and onto footpaths replaces one type of hazard with another. My experience of using the cycle route from Whiteabbey to Belfast was unpleasant to say the least – I would rather ride a bicycle again through Paris. 

In the first instance, I encountered a pensioners walking group who had just emerged onto the cycle path and filled the width of the path like a herd of bullocks. The walk leader (?) was engrossed deep in conversation, as was most of the group of largely female members. A loud bell (Lion Works) rung repeatedly as I approached brought no response until I drew close to the front of the group, when a warning shout of 'bike' was given. It had little effect on the group. Rather than keep to one side of the path, the group panicked and split up, so it was like a reverse game of skittles, trying hard not to be brought off the bike. I am not against older people being active, nor meeting up socially to exercise together. It is a win, win situation. However Newtownabbey Borough Council actively promote the cycle route locally for walking, so are increasing the number of pedestrians on the route. Try negotiating this with a loaded touring bike, panniers etc – should create a favourable impression for visiting cycle tourists who want to enjoy the views over Belfast Lough, but find themselves having to try and dodge pedestrians. The question I have for Sustrans is this, how does this policy adopted by one of their partners encourage cycling and develop the cycle route for commuting into Belfast? Is this the best way of increasing the number of bicycle journeys, which is meant to be part of a sustainable transport policy?

Another problem is dogs running loose off the lead and dog fouling. The law was changed in Northern Ireland to make it an offence not to have your dog on a lead on a public road.  (This should prevent you being chased and bitten by a dog while riding on the road!)  The local councils were given responsibility for this legislation and have also designated other public areas where dogs must be walked on a lead. Newtownabbey Borough Council have responsibility for the Whiteabbey end of the cycle route, but have decreed that you don't have to walk your dog on a lead on the cycle route??? My sister is currently nursing cracked ribs having been brought off her bike by a dog running loose on her local cycle route riding to a meeting place for her usual Saturday morning club run.  I must point out, this was not in Newtownabbey Borough Council area, but I use it as an illustration as to what can so easily happen. It is hardly safe practice and not conducive to making the shared footpath safer for cyclists. How many of the people who took this decision actually use a bicycle for transport? - Is the Northern Ireland transport policy really joined up?

A further problem is that many pedestrians/joggers using the footpath use an MP3 type player or mobile phone to listen to music.....they are tuned in to their music, but not much else, so can't hear a bicycle bell or warning shout. Again, I speak from experience. I prefer to ride on the left, as this is the norm on the road in this part of the world, but using these footpaths you have to learn to weave to avoid other users of the path. (A definite need for spatial awareness software upgrades). 

I contacted both Sustrans the charity responsible for the cycle route and Newtownabbey Borough Council about the incident with the walking group. Sustrans response to my email was in my humble opinion pathetic. The Sustrans 'Code of Conduct' for using their footpath cycle routes which formed the main part of their reply, is available on the link. The Borough Council stated they would investigate the walking group incident and get back to me, only didn't, hence the blog post months after the incident. They did however respond to my enquiry about the dogs legislation and confirm there was no legal requirement to have a dog on a lead on the cycle routes in their Borough, nor are there any council bye-laws governing the use of these footpath cycle routes. 

From the available evidence it would appear that Sustrans in obtaining funding and working with partner agencies to develop 'cycle routes', are creating some routes which are less than ideal for cyclists and from Sustrans own policy, cyclists appear to have few if any rights, rather all the responsibility is placed onto the cyclist. (Is this really a realistic way of encouraging cycling and how are you meant to "relax and unwind"?) These cycle routes replace the hazard from motor vehicles with another real hazard from pedestrians and dogs running loose. I think that the idea of developing cycle routes is very commendable, but I would much prefer to see this done in a meaningful cyclist-centric way, that supports and protects the interests of cyclists but does not endanger or alienate other interest groups.

Encouraging bicycle use for transport and recreation, by reducing hazards on public roads - using bus lanes etc, ensuring that bicycles as vehicles are not marginalised and pushed off the public highway, seems to me a better solution. A bicycle is a vehicle and where it is deemed necessary to share a footpath, it should be clearly segregated to protect and ensure the safety of all the users of that space. Common sense really.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

1940s Alex Singer - Une Belle Chanteuse

There are some ambitions in life which you may hold in hope, but never reasonably expect to fulfil. I held one in this category for many years, never believing it would ever be fulfilled, but by a unexpected turn of fate over the summer, I was able to realise it. I refer to riding a machine made by the great Parisian constructeur, Alex Singer. I have been fortunate to ride quite a few different hand made British and Irish lightweight steel frames over the years. My curiosity was aroused from childhood, listening to the cycling stories of my parents and the various marques of bicycle ridden by their siblings, friends and clubmates. As my cycling horizon broadened, I became aware of the great tradition of randonneuring in France and the top of the range 'constructeur' built machines. Paris was famous for the 'constructeurs' like Cycles Alex Singer, Cycles René Herse and Cycles Goéland- Louis Moire to name some of the more well known. There was debate amongst owners of Cycles Alex Singer and Cycles René Herse as to who was the better maker, with many favouring René Herse. The closest Britain got to a 'constructeur' was the Taylor brothers from Stockton-on-Tees who had some connection with Goéland-Louis Moire. These beautiful hand crafted French bicycles had mudguards, often had integrated lights, derailleur gears and were fast and light according to what I read. Were they that good I wondered? How did they differ from a British hand made frame? It has taken me decades to find out. I have some experience of riding a 1960 650B Goéland Randonneur built from Reynolds 531, which rides much better than many machines I had ridden up to that point. It was my first real experience of the 650B wheel size on a proper constructeur built randonneuring bicycle and I was very impressed with the integrated bike and it's responsiveness. 

I then unexpectedly had the chance to try a 1940s Alex Singer with 700C wheels. The machine came with some history and was beautifully made, yet understated. The bicycle was originally a full chrome model, but over it's long life, with it's original owner, it was enamelled black in the 1970s and fitted with top of the range all French components from the same era. Perhaps some may consider the bike changes to be negative, as the machine was altered from the original constructeur's spec, however, the bike was used and ridden by the original owner and he considered the changes made to have been an upgrade. Many of the components are unique to this machine and were custom made for the owner with a gold anodised finish. 

My first impression was the beauty of the understated paint finish of the frame carried over onto the mudguards, complete with gold lining. The highly polished cranks of the triple chainset gleamed in the sunlight, before lifting the bike equipped with decaleur and sacoche, which was a revelation at how light the machine was. 

After checking the saddle height I got on the bike and from the first input of the pedals it was a joy to ride and just glided along. It looked right and it rode as well, if not better, than it looked. Of all the 27 inch/700c wheel touring/audax bikes I have ever ridden this is without doubt the best to date.

It has the performance and is close to the weight of a top drawer steel competition racing bike but with touring bike frame geometry, and mudguards. Everything just works together so well, no creaks, no movement of the decaleur even on pavé, no chain rub on the front derailleur, the responsiveness of the bike to input and the rock steady handling. The only drawback I found was riding it over pavé. The surface vibration is bearable, however, I found it not as comfortable as the 650B wheel size, transmitting much more of the road vibration. However, my interest has been stirred and I would love to try out a pre 1980 Cycles Alex Singer in 650B wheel size to see how the two machines would compare. I don't wish to denigrate in any way, other artisan frame builders, but can say the Alex Singer is the most joyous 700C wheeled machine I have ridden to date. It is a bit like Edith Piaf singing 'Je ne regrette rien', how do you isolate one element which you can say makes the performance so special? I don't believe you can, it is the sum of the whole. I think the Alex Singer is like that, hard to define one outstanding unique quality, rather it is the sum of the constructuer's skill, attention to detail and experience, all brought to bare in the creation of an individual machine. I always had a smile on my face after riding the Alex Singer.  

Singer in English has a different meaning to French. I think a wordplay on the English meaning, in French, sums up my impression of this 'petite reine' very well - une belle chanteuse.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

1952 Rudge Ulster Tourist

I spotted this bike for sale on the web locally. The machine appeared complete and original from the photos. I watched it for a few days before deciding to check if it was still for sale, before arranging a viewing of the bike. A quick phone call to the seller and the bike was still unsold. A leisurely drive in the autumn sunshine to view the bike and the deal was done. The bike was loaded into the back of the car and returned home with me. I have hankered after one of these Rudge 'Ulster' models for quite a while because of the association with this particular province of Ireland. Unfortunately the machine is too small for me, but I had a new owner in mind anyway. 
This machine is a 1952 Rudge Ulster Tourist Gent's roadster bicycle with a 21” frame, complete with tired original paint and transfers. 

It is fitted with an alloy Sturmey Archer FW 4 speed hub and 26 x 1 3/8” (650A) wheels.
The machine dates from when Raleigh owned Rudge and the headbadge still fitted on the head tube and the Raleigh 23-28 High Tensile steel tubing transfer confirms this.

According to the only 1950s Rudge catalogue on line in the V-CC library (1959), this particular machine was model 129. It had an entirely brazed frame with a brazed on pulley boss on the Gent's model only. 

The 1959 model had celluloid mudguards, but the 1952 has Raleigh pattern metal ones. 

The 1959 price for Rudge Ulster Tourist was £20. 4/-. 4d. with a further £2. 16/-. 4d payable for a Sturmey Archer dynohub . The frame was also Spra-Bonderized rust proofed. The paint finish was very similar with similar specification contrasting head panel colours and frame box lining This process was well regarded by cyclists of the time and in later years as one of the best available rust inhibiting processes. A lot of the artisan framebuilders such as Holdsworth and Bob Jackson used the process on their frames. The 1959 Rudge catalogue lists this model as having a Brooks leather saddle, however, the catalogue illustration shows the machine with a sprung type mattress saddle which the 1952 model has. The same image was obviously used in the catalogue for a number of years, despite the machine specification changing.
The chainring on the 1952 model incorporates the 'Red Hand of Ulster'. The machine is still very original down to the perished 'John Bull' tyre. The frame angles are more relaxed and the fork rake is much bigger than modern machines, but then many byways and minor roads were still to see tar in the early 1950s, It is a quality machine as evidenced by the more expensive alloy Sturmey Archer hub gear. The bicycle will need a complete strip down and new grease in all the bearings. Both of the original Dunlop pattern Endrick steel rims have acquired flats and from an assessment of the damage the rims will need replacement. Other than that, a good service and clean, this old Rudge should be ready for the road. Even the overhaul and service of the Sturmey Archer FW hub should present none of the problems associated with the FM or FC hubs. I hope the new owner is delighted with it. I'm looking forward to seeing it out on the road next year.