Reviews of the Talks

A man in blue top and black trousers standing in front a heavily-laden bike

Reviewer - Janette Sykes

Equal measures of adventure and adversity – spiced with liberal lashings of the kindness of strangers – add up to the perfect recipe for happiness, according to Buxton-based cyclist Roland York.

As a strictly leisure-focused bike rider who believes that the Monsal Trail represents the pinnacle of achievement on two wheels, I was fascinated by the eye-watering challenges he described during his entertaining account of his extensive travels.

I soon realised I wasn’t the only one when Roland finally paused for breath to take questions from the 80-strong audience, and a sea of hands shot up to ask about everything from the routes he has travelled to the equipment he carries.

Originally from the North East, Roland, now 71, said he discovered cycling when his mind was ‘in a mess’ and it really helped him, quickly becoming ‘the best thing in my life’. His first adventure took him to Germany and France, where he met his French wife in Paris, and with whom he had two daughters

During his marriage, he managed to persuade his wife to cycle with him from London to Paris, then to undertake a tougher route in India, which ended with him catching dysentery and spending two weeks in hospital. It also presaged the eventual end of his relationship in 2000, and instead he focused on his life-long passion for cycling.

At the age of 30, he found himself in a well-paid but unfulfilling sales job, which put additional pressure on his marriage. Much to his parents’ dismay, he left both the job and his wife to get on his bike again and venture into the unknown, heading to meet friends in Germany.

“Looking back, I was very naïve and carried everything but the kitchen sink on my bike, which at that time was a Raleigh model with ten gears,” he recalled. “And the maps I had to rely on were on a scale of 1: 500,000!” When he arrived in Hamburg, he had a rude awakening, as it was minus ten degrees Celsius: “Everything I had was frozen, from my beard to my bike gears. I was riding on a Brooks leisure saddle with big springs, and by the time I stopped for a comfort break, all my personal ‘bits’ had hibernated! The saddle had pushed them to places they had never been before!”

Nevertheless the experience gave him a taste for serious cycling, and after he had retrained as a teacher, that was his ultimate goal when his daughters came to live with him. At first he concentrated on mountain biking as the girls grew up, but since then has enjoyed a series of much tougher ventures, overcoming numerous broken bones, prostate cancer and diabetes along the way.

Among the routes he has tackled are from Calais to Marseilles and Nîmes to Nantes in France, the south of Spain to the south of France and the 250 kilometres long (155 miles long) Sentier de Cathar (Cathar Trail).in the French Pyrenees. In the UK, he has tackled Land’s End to John O’Groats and has completed the Coast to Coast trail several times.

Not surprisingly, Roland usually travels solo. By his own admission: “I have no fear, I just get on my bike and go, knowing that I will enjoy 90 per cent of each day. One of the best pieces of advice I have ever been given was that every problem has a solution, and it has. Everywhere I go I encounter adversity, but I overcome it, and that is an exhilarating feeling. And I never cease to be amazed by the kindness of strangers, giving me everything from a bottle of water to a meal and bed for the night. I have discovered that people are the same wherever you go – there are kind ones who will help you, and rotten ones who won’t.”

Roland’s adventures have ranged from the humorous (celebrating Christmas in Spain in September with a group of Spaniards, Argentinians and Mexicans, because the Mexicans loved Christmas but were soon to be heading home) to the serious (finding himself in a decidedly dodgy B&B in Avignon, France, which was packed with people having a party and had a filthy kitchen and bathroom).

Moments of kindness have happened on the Cathar Trail in France, when a woman cleaning a closed hostel offered him a meal and let him stay the night there on his own and in Orleans, France, when he was injured in tramlines, went to a café to recover and met an English couple who needed an inner tube. Roland gave them one of his inner tubes and in return they paid for his meal. “You get that all the time when you’re on the road,” he reflected.

Other rewarding, and moving, experiences have focused on young people, such as a nine-year-old girl he met while in Germany, who spoke to him in English when she realised he couldn’t speak German: “It still brings a tear to my eye.” He was also impressed by a group of youngsters he encountered while cycling 1,000 kilometres (621 miles) from Calais to Marseille. “They were doing their cycling proficiency test, and their teacher brought them over to meet me,” said Roland. “I told them they could go all the way around the world on their bikes one day, and the excitement on their faces really made my day.”

Roland’s present to himself when he retired as a teacher of technology and history at St. Thomas More School was a titanium-framed bike worth £2,500. He describes it as ‘heavily laden and much-loved’, and it copes with everything from clothes and camping gear to tools and toiletries when he’s on his travels. He still relies on a compass, though his maps are now on a much more detailed scale, and covers an average of 105 kilometres (65 miles) a day, staying in his tent, in hostels or in B&Bs..

Routes he would like to conquer in the future are the west coast of Ireland and other options in the USA, finances permitting. And even though he has travelled extensively in Europe and Asia, ironically, one of his worst-ever accidents happened locally. He was negotiating a steep hill in the Goyt Valley, when on impulse he decided to see if he could reach 50 miles an hour. He hit a very close 49 mph, but his front wheel started to wobble, he hit a hump, came off and damaged his neck and spine. His bike survived with slightly twisted handlebars.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that he usually travels alone – though one of his upcoming trips will be with a friend who is about to retire, pedalling all the way from St Malo to Santander – a whopping 960 kilometres, or 600 miles. “When you cycle with someone else, you have to make sure it’s with someone who won’t moan along the way,” he quipped. “I’ve done the Northumberland Trail with him in the past, so I know he won’t!” Think I’d better stick to the Monsal Trail….

Reviewer: Janette Sykes

Dealing with everything from blocked teats to difficult births was once all in a day’s work for retired vet Lorna Francis, whose memoirs recount the fascinating story of a career spanning four decades in a busy Bakewell-based practice.

A smiling woman holding a dog in front of a Peak District view

Lorna, who grew up in rural Warwickshire and trained at Liverpool University, had hardly heard of Derbyshire and didn’t know anyone in the area when she arrived here to start work in April 1981. All she knew was that she wanted to work in a practice that offered scope to work with farm animals, livestock and horses, as well as with small animals such as cats and dogs, and her first job in the Peak District provided that opportunity.

She initially moved to Winster, near Matlock, and was immediately bowled over by the warm welcome she received from the local community. She soon put down roots, made many friends, and worked as an employee for several years before her employers announced that they intended to retire.

Lorna, who now lives in Stanton-in-Peak, bought the practice with a partner and built premises in Bakewell, which they successfully ran until their own retirement, prior to lockdown. She decided to commit her stories to paper after a chance meeting with a farmer’s wife in Baslow and exchanging reminiscences in early 2020.

Covid and subsequent lockdowns provided the perfect opportunity for her to sit down and write, and the result is her newly published book, Lorna the Peak District Vet. Her love of the local landscape, the area’s capricious climate and its interesting, and often quirky, characters is obvious to anyone listening to, or reading, her varied recollections.

And, as anyone who has ever read or watched the TV series chronicling James Herriot’s experiences of being a vet in the Yorkshire Dales can testify, Lorna’s firm opinion is that being a vet is as much about understanding and getting on with people and building relationships as it is about diagnosing and treating their animals.

One of the characters she recalled was an elderly woman who lived on a farm near Bakewell and came down to the market each week, walking eight miles there and back, and always returning with heavy shopping bags. Lorna would take pity on her and offer her a lift, even though it was clear from the overpowering smell that she never took a bath. Each time she would open the car windows wide and would swear she would never do it again – until the next time she saw her struggling with her bags and would invariably give her a lift again!

One of Lorna’s favourite times of the year was spring, when there would be lots of births and she would watch new life coming into the world, which she described as ‘a magical experience’. She recalled being called out to an ewe that needed an emergency Caesarean: “All went well, and as the lamb was born, the sun came up over the horizon like a golden ball. It was an absolutely amazing sight, and something I will always remember.”

On another occasion, she was called out to a calving, and when she put her hand inside the cow, felt three legs rather than the usual two. She soon realised that the cow was carrying twin calves, managed to untangle their legs and deliver them safely. “That was very satisfying, but when I put my hand back in to check that everything was alright inside the cow, I felt yet another leg and pulled out yet another calf! The following week I appeared in a photograph with the cow and her triplets in the local newspaper, and I still have the cutting to this day.”

Many medical emergencies are caused by animals eating something they shouldn’t, ranging from half a frozen turkey on Christmas Eve to a whole box of Quality Street chocolates. One dog even tried to dine on his owner’s bra, and during one emergency operation Lorna came across a champagne cork in a dog’s stomach, just after its owner had celebrated a special birthday.

Lorna also told the tale of a farmer who had the habit off feeding his cattle potatoes, leaving them whole rather than breaking them up. “So they were round, and just about the right size to get stuck in a cow’s gullet,” she explained. “If you don’t remove them, the cow can‘t eat and can’t belch, which can cause pain and a lot of problems. With one particular cow, I put my hand in her mouth and could feel the potato, but couldn’t move it. I then remembered I had a corkscrew in the car, so used that to engage with it and prise it out – and felt very pleased with myself afterwards!”

Sometimes being a vet can be a health hazard, as Lorna found when she went to castrate a young male pony. “The technique varies, depending on the personality of the pony,” she said. “Some can be slightly sedated and you can do the operation while they are standing up, while in other cases you have to fully anaesthetise them and perform the procedure while they are lying down, unconscious.

“In this case, the pony was good-natured, so I just sedated him, then put my head on his flank while I did the operation. It was only when I was driving back to the surgery that my head started to itch and I realised that I had lice crawling all over my hands and under my fingernails, some of which had migrated to my hair! When I got back I ran straight into the shower, completely forgetting that I needed a new change of clothes. Fortunately the vet nurses came to my rescue, and my modesty was spared!”

Another time, Lorna was dealing with a herd of Welsh black cattle, when one turned on her and tried to attack her: “I ran as fast as I could across the yard and jumped on to a fuel tank, out of the way, but it was very frightening.” And when she was trying to help a cow that had calved and had a prolapsed uterus, she was in danger or getting badly kicked: “The cow was charging around the field with her uterus hanging out, and was clearly in some discomfort, but she kept lashing out at me, all the same!” Heavier, continental breeds of cattle can also be a challenge, because of their size and strength: “They can be very daunting, and you usually have to put them into a crate before you can treat them. And sometimes, even getting them into a crate is very difficult!”

The most unusual patients Lorna had were a tarantula – ‘Fortunately I had a colleague who was willing and able to take over, as I don’t think I would have been able to touch it!’ – and a mysterious creature housed in a very large box: “I gingerly opened the lid to find a huge, and very colourful, iguana inside.”

Fortunately, Lorna lived to literally tell the tale, and after a long and satisfying career is enjoying a fulfilling and active retirement. Her book is available from Chatsworth, the High Peak Bookstore at Brierlow Bar, the Derbyshire Gift Centre at Calver, or at www.lornapeakdistrictvet.co.uk

Art critic and aesthete John Ruskin was outraged when the Headstone Viaduct was built in 1863 to link Buxton and Bakewell by rail, cutting a swathe through one of the Peak District’s most scenic limestone valleys, Monsal Dale. Ruskin believed the dale had been defiled, declaring: “There was a rocky valley between Buxton and Bakewell, once upon a time, divine as the Vale of Tempe. The valley is gone, and the gods with it, and now every fool in Buxton can be in Bakewell in half-an-hour, and every fool in Bakewell at Buxton.”

He certainly wouldn’t have welcomed current efforts spearheaded by campaign group Manchester and East Midlands Rail Action Partnership (MEMRAP) to reopen sections of the former Peaks and Dales Line between Matlock and Buxton/Chinley, launched in 2019. The proposal is certainly controversial, as some of the route would follow the line of the eight-and-a-half-miles long Monsal Trail, since developed by the Peak District National Park Authority and now popular with walkers, cyclists and horse riders. And it certainly generated interest among members of Buxton and District u3a, as more than 80 of them came along to find out what it would entail.

MEMRAP director Stephen Chaytow explained that the organisation’s aim was to reinstate sections of the former line, which operated for 101 years, from 1867 to 1968, working in a collaborative way with all organisations, businesses and users involved to provide a rail service that works for everyone, while retaining the tourist and recreational appeal of the area en route. “The railway ran for more than a century, and for the first 17 years of the Peak District National Park’s life, so we would only be putting back what was there before,” he observed.

According to Chaytow, MEMRAP’s Rail and Trail option would enable the original rail route to be reinstated and a re-routed Monsal Trail retained, while taking into account the needs and expectations of all businesses, residents and users. “We are aware that many businesses along and near the Trail depend on it for their livelihoods, and we are trying to be constructive in the way in which the railway comes back,” he said. When planning the re-routed Monsal Trail, attention would be paid to mitigating the environmental impact and enhancing biodiversity, he added.

Chaytow contended that despite being a popular tourist attraction, the Peak District was ‘not directly accessible by public transport’, with an over-reliance on bus services that is ‘not robust’ and is ‘unappealing’ to existing and potential users. He also suggested the unsuitability of the current infrastructure could be ‘a blocker to levelling up’. MEMRAP’s Rail and Trail scheme, he added, would bring a high-capacity rail service back to the area, offering shorter journey times at fair prices. It would connect local communities and reverse their decline, would mean less traffic and would reduce lorry journeys. The reinstated rail service would be designed to encourage people to leave their cars at home and bring more bikes into the area. “Post-Covid, more people are coming here for staycations, and we need a railway to bring them here in a sustainable way,” he said.

According to Chaytow, restoring the service would bring benefits and better connectivity for nine million people in and around the area, including surrounding cities such as Sheffield, Manchester, Derby, Nottingham and Leicester. Based on tools used to put together a business case by Transport for the North that suggested improved rail links could bring £118 million of increased growth to around 16 million people, Chaytow estimated that £50 billion of economic benefits could be generated by 2050 if the Peaks and Dales Line were reinstated.

He also cited the example of a transport interchange at Galashiels in the Scottish borders, bringing together rail and bus services, bikes, taxis and cars, which, he said, also encouraged people to explore the town on foot and was boosting prosperity as a result – another model that could be considered in the Peak District.

All interesting food for thought, and a subject that sparked several pertinent questions. These focused on where a re-routed Monsal Trail could be accommodated, post-Covid changes to the world of work that could impact passenger numbers and the need for enhanced public transport links from potential stations to such attractions as Chatsworth if the scheme were to go ahead.

So where does the campaign go from here? Chaytow said he had sent a briefing paper to that week’s Labour Party Conference in Liverpool and was looking forward to an imminent meeting with Transport for Great Manchester to discuss MEMRAP’s proposal. MEMRAP is also busily raising £250,000 to support its campaign, which includes the cost of preparing official business case documents. And Chairman of Buxton and District u3a, Keith Gregory, issued an open invitation to Chaytow to return to a future general meeting to update members with any further developments. In the meantime, you can visit https://www.memrap.org/ if you’re keen to know more.