Tuesday, 14 November 2017

A new book - a Wiltshire Year



In a previous post  I wrote about my adopted county of Wiltshire, and decided that maybe I should go and work for the tourist board. But of course there are no jobs there - paid, at least - so I abandoned writing about motorcycles and set too on a new book about Wiltshire. And here it is.. 


England was born in Wiltshire when King Alfred won the battle of Ethandune in 878, and one of Wiltshire’s famous white horses still guards the site. Of course people lived in Wiltshire long before that: Stonehenge was once the most populous place in Europe, and the site of a great midwinter feast. One of the few places not covered by dense forests, this was where sheep farming could make England rich and create the biggest empire the world has seen.
But Britain’s rise came with mixed fortunes. The Black Death killed millions, yet allowed a new middle class to emerge and create the first true European democracy. Yet conflict has never been far away, a bloody Civil War being fought across Wiltshire, and we prepared for two world wars including the first military airfields. Concorde first flew here and Wiltshire continues to have the most advanced aircraft in the world regularly visiting her skies.
The canals of Wiltshire brought remarkable feats of engineering that Brunel would build on to create his Great Western Railway. Suddenly fresh food could be speedily brought into cities to feed the exploding population, although not without cost.
By exploring English history through a Wiltshire year each development can be set in context. How dark winters create superstitions and opportunities, and how conflicting demands pressurise farmers and wildlife. Stories that tell how the haves kept the have-nots to heel, but occasionally compromising by offering  rights such as land ownership and the vote. Yet most of all this is a love letter to the English countryside and Wiltshire in particular. In a world riddled with divisions this is a chance to understand our shared heritage, hopefully with plenty of “I didn’t know that”s along the way.
Greg Pullen has lived in Wiltshire for fifty years, working as a chartered surveyor specialising in old buildings. His writing has been published in national newspapers and magazines, and three books for the Crowood Press. A Wiltshire Year is his second self published book. You can buy it here
http://teambenzina.bigcartel.com/product/a-wiltshire-year-the-history-of-england-in-one-county-with-free-uk-postage

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Free T shirt postage! Ducati, MV and MotoGuzzi options



















Running low (entirely out of in fact) on some sizes of these lovely soft t shirts. Of course they feature Italian motorcycles, including the MV Agusta 750 Sport and Moto Guzzi V7 Sport illustrated by Jamie Kinroy. Or there's the best selling red or maroon version celebrating Mike Hailwood's 1978 Formula 1 win for Ducati at the Isle of Man TT. The tees are a high quality side seamed Bella+Canvas item in 100% combed and ring-spun cotton, more like a pricey high street fashion item than the usual online stuff. More at http://benzinatshirts.bigcartel.com/

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Wiltshire way

Walking the dog, up on the Wessex Ridgeway, I can see everywhere I’ve lived since 1969. Is this a good thing, to have seen so much of one place, risking the loss of a better life somewhere else? Perhaps, and I certainly thought so as a teenager stranded in a rural wasteland, peering into a brighter world through the prism of the motorcycle press.
But then I started to travel and work around the world and came to realise my discontent was connected to a lack of transport rather than where I lived. And now I think this probably is one of the best places in the world to live, especially if you like a bit of social history. Yet Wiltshire remains a forgotten county: even our kids have learnt to stop saying they live in Wiltshire, but just say near Stonehenge. Funny that everyone knows Stonehenge, but few know Wiltshire. And yet from up here on the Ridgeway you can trace human civilisation from its beginnings to the highest of today’s high tech.
Wiltshire is the now least populous county in England, ironic given that it was the most densely populated place in the UK when Stonehenge was built. And although you can’t see Stonehenge from the Ridgeway, one the oldest manmade routes in the world, it’s only ten miles away. Ten miles in the opposite direction is the even more impressive Avebury, Stonehenge’s World Heritage Site sibling. Avebury is where the science of archaeology started, back in the Eighteenth century, some 5,000 years after it was built.
Below the Downs in the middle distance is Devizes, with one of the finest Norman church and street plans in the country. There’s also the remains of the castle that marked the divide – hence Devizes – between crown and church control.
The church’s centre of power in these parts was down in Salisbury where the cathedral was built in a single style and at great speed – 38 years, where most took over a century to build. It is home to one of the Magna Cartas, the document that started to limit the crown and state’s power over its people.  
Power over people of a different sort can be found back in Devizes. The Colston family have the finest tomb in the town’s churchyard, paid for by the slave trade. It might appal us now, but slavery was what powered civilisation before the industrial revolution: slaves built and fought in Rome’s colosseum, raised the pyramids, and possibly Stonehenge. The Colston’s were considered great philanthropists in their day building and funding Roundway Hospital (named after their estate on the northern side of Devizes) as the county lunatic asylum. The buildings are fabulous, today converted into housing.

The other market towns are further away from the Ridgeway, following rivers. They are punctuated at roughly ten mile intervals, that being a reasonable day’s travel if droving livestock, or travelling to and from an outlying village. Early on people lived up on top of the Downs, building hill forts and terraces to grow food: there’s one such terrace, known as strip lynchets, a few hundred yards from where I climb up to the Ridgeway. Little but grass grows up here, just a few inches of soil covering solid chalk, which is why there are occasional white horses carved onto the slopes. The one I can see above Devizes was created for the millennium, and most are only a few hundred years old. The valleys below were heavily wooded and home to bears and wolves, so trips down to collect water and firewood were fraught with danger.
Some of the steep slopes made these lands easily defended, but this could be a double edged sword. The steep, rounded rise near Devizes is Oliver’s Mount, scene of a bloody battle in the English Civil War, still the bloodiest war in human history: a greater proportion of the population were killed than in any other conflict. The mounted Royalists drove Cromwell's Roundheads down  the slope in the biggest cavalry victory of the first civil war.

Over by West Lavington there’s a short church tower, and above it the plague pit. The plagues killed a third of the population, and mass graves near the church – and so consecrated ground – were the only way to cope. This is the reason churches are often on the edges of villages, as people moved away from the burial sites.
Gradually human activity cleared the woodland that covered Wiltshire’s plains and valleys to the extent that felling oak was an offence by the end of the Eighteenth century, the timber reserved for warships. The chalk uplands became home to the sheep that can still be seen occasionally, and were a great driver of England’s wealth. The barter of wool for Port from Portugal is the oldest surviving commercial agreement in the world, but the wealth it created was soon mopped up by the rich for themselves. The 1773 Enclosures Act allowed anyone with a title to claim common land as their own, leading to desperate rural poverty. My own home is built on such land, and from the Ridgeway I can see the Lansdown monument, an obelisk built by the Bowood Estate near Chippenham (just visible down by the River Avon) to mark the end of their land. Bowood has one of Wiltshire’s Capability Brown landscapes, although it is far less impressive than the one at Stourhead, down in the south west of the county.

Also near Chippenham is Lacock, a village perfectly preserved in time by the National Trust, and the star of many period dramas. I would stay with family here when parents went on holiday, getting soaked in the ford or building model aircraft in the front garden while trying to avoid inquisitive tourists. The village’s Abbey was confiscated from the church during Henry VIII’s reformation and the Fox Talbots who lived here invented photography. It was also used for the early Harry Potter films.

Up to the north is Swindon where Brunel based his Great Western Railway, now a museum and shopping village.  In front of me is Calne, where Harris the butchers were the main employer. You still see free-range pigs around Stonehenge and, with the new railway, Harris developed the Wiltshire ham cure that used less salt but still allowed hams to be taken to London without refrigeration. Pigs and ham were so central to diet here that some houses still have a brining bath in the cellar, added as the house was built but too big to be removed.
The gentle slope to the west of Devizes is home to the longest series of canal locks in the world. “Putting your back into” was how a lock was opened, and only the Victorians would think to bring a canal up to a town 400 feet above sea level. It’s a mightily impressive sight, and when you get to the top you can visit Wadworth’s brewery for a sharpener.

The Ridgeway marks the northern boundary of Salisbury Plain, Europe’s largest area of open grassland and the main practice zone for the UK military. As reminders of our high tech world Apache attack helicopters are commonplace, fast jets a regular sight and tanks occasionally block the roads. Makes a change from a hunt or a tractor. Over beyond Chippenham is Malmesbury, home to Dyson one of the biggest engineering research and development facilities in the country. They also make the odd vacuum cleaner.

So it might look empty, but Wiltshire is home to much of our history. And, if you must stray, the fabulous city of Bath is just over the border and London’s an hour on the train. We even get far less rain than the average for England. And there are some bloody fantastic roads and trails when you want to mess around on motorbikes. The countryside varies from soaring Downs, hidden lanes, forests and empty valleys. I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather live.

 

Monday, 16 January 2017

Holiday reading - some great motorcycle (and philosophy) books

Two weeks in India, catching winter sun and a bit of culture. But also two weeks with no meaningful Internet access and in a country where an Enfield 350 is a flash bike (and £1600 brand new rather than the £5k you pay in the UK) means books were my only escape to two wheels.

Every five years or so I reread Zen and the Art of MotorcycleMaintenance, trying to remind me of what’s important in life. But before that, on the recommendation of many reviewers, I read Derren Brown’s Happy. Now, I’m aware of Derren’s TV and magic show fame but have never been tempted to sample any of it. Given that background, a book on philosophy (and mainly ancient Roman and Greek philosophy) seemed just an attempt to cash in on his fame. But when the Sunday Times made it one of their books of the year, and admitted it would have been seen as a much more important work if it wasn’t written by one so famous. So it went in the suitcase.

And my, was I glad I brought it. Some of it is predictable – the knocking of faith healers, dealing with fame, and references to the author’s TV work could be skipped over with no real loss. But the work on philosophy had me taking notes and realising that the Romans really did build and Plato and Aristotle. Modern philosophers are discussed, including everyone named checked in Monty Python’s Bruce’s'Philosophers Song.

But what really comes across is that Derren’s a fan of the Roman Stoics (where we get our word stoic from, although that’s to misunderstand their philosophy). An important and timely book that should replace every self-help book ever written. But if you can’t be bothered to read it here’s one important point: we can only really control two things in our life; what we think and what we do. Understand that and accepting it might not make you happy, but it allows you to let go of everything that might make you unhappy. As the brilliant Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius put it, “The gods (aka fortune, luck, chance or whatever you want to call it) are not to blame. They do nothing wrong, on purpose, or by accident. Nor men either. No one is to blame.” Stoic words indeed.

Anyway, armed with Derren’s wisdom I fair rattled through Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and finally understood every last bit.  Amazingly it remains the best selling book of all time on philosophy, and the money it made allowed author Robert Persig to pretty much disappear; understandable given his son Chris (who accompanied him on the motorcycle tour Pirsig bases the book around) was murdered a few years after Zen and the Art… was published. Still one of my favourite books of all time, never mind just motorcycle books.
My favourite ten motorcycle books would include Melissa Holbrook Pierson’s The Perfect Vehicle, which the Times compared to Zen and the Art... , saying while “at times (Zen and the Art) is hard going, this fluent book (The Perfect Vehicle) ultimately reveals more about the strengths and limitations of ordinary human beings in pursuit of happiness.”

Melissa allowed some of her the work to be used in Benzina 14 and has promised something original for issue 15, so I admit an interest. But, when I realised my copy of ThePerfect Vehicle was almost 20 years old, I decided it was worth a re-read. The writing is poetic, soothing but speaks directly to anyone with a passing interest in motorcycles and travel. If, like Melissa you like travelling on Motor Guzzis, it will make your heart sing. And support included help from another Benzina contributor, Ivar de Gier, one of the world’s leading Guzzi historians.

Next up was Mark Gardiner’s On Motorcycles – the best ofbackmarker. A lot of it’s online, but I’m a print junkie – Mark posted me a copy because it’s not on Amazon.co.uk., although it is at the time of posting available on ebay.co.uk by clicking here. A collection of essays on every aspect of motorcycling, including ‘Who Would Jesus Kill?’, the inspiring ‘Searching for Spadino’, and ‘The Naked Frenchman’ it’s a perfect dip-in-and-out-of book (as are his Trivia books but they’re best sellers so hardly need promoting).

Not only is Mark a great writer (a career in the ad business almost makes that expected) his preparedness to get on a motorcycle or aeroplane to find the people who experienced his stories first hand is pretty much unique these days. I’ve been reading about bikes since 1975 (the July ’75 issue of Bike magazine), writing about them for 9 years and writing about old buildings for a decade or so before that. I love to read and dig up obscure information. This means that people not as fastidious in their research as Mark drive me mad: motorcycle magazines especially seem to repeat lazy half-truths, Wikipedia style, in the hope that history can be altered if a certain set of “facts” are rewritten often enough. Not so with Mark – not only did every Backmarker story resonate, Mark names his sources, is clear when he’s unsure of his ground, and – get this – invites readers to correct any apparent errors. A brilliant book that everyone with an interest in motorcycle history will love. Pricey maybe but, with well over 400 pages of solid, well crafted literature between the covers, worth every penny. I just hope his wonderful Riding Man (his personal account of entering the TT) gets made into a film and makes Mark rich. Though not rich enough to stop him writing.