A BIKE ACROSS THE SEA
North Staffordshire Press 2019
isbn 978 1 91601520 3
Reviewed by Charlie Faringdon
I volunteered for this review, despite knowing that the author of the book is co-editor of www.sevendaycyclist.com where, I was told, the review would be published in due course. Steve has promised to do no more than copy edit. So, the opinions are my own, but the mistakes are his.
That out of the way, A Bike Across the Sea is part cycling, part history, and part pub and art-gallery crawl. Yes, that is a generalisation, but it’ll give things a bit of structure. In that sense it isn’t just about riding a bike and, although the two riders made some long mileage some days, it isn’t about attacking the hills and seeking a personal best.
The fundaments are these: the author, and a friend, ride from Burslem, in Stoke-on-Trent, to the village of Lidice, near Prague, in the Czech Republic. They carry with them two art works as gifts. Their purpose is to help raise awareness of a
campaign to rejuvenate a wartime friendship that commenced after the very public and very well publicised destruction of the village in 1942. “Lidice Shall Die, Forever,” stated Adolf Hitler. A few weeks later the “Lidice Shall Live Campaign” began in Stoke-on-Trent, spreading to many other areas of the UK and bringing together communities around the World. Especially popular with miners, it raised money for a new village and a host of other features. We’ll leave the history there. Needless to say, there’s more about that in the book.
The cycling element, along with a whole host of connected reflections, and snippets of life, links to the past, and cycling culture along the way. Having ridden across England from Burslem to Hull, they cross the Netherlands and Germany, en route to the Czech Republic. Nor do they stop at their original destination, having been invited by a guy named Milan Krcmar – who had done a ride for a connected by different cause, from his home town in Moravia to London – to see some sights linked to the story further west.
In some ways, I wish they’d taken a government minister with them to see cycling infrastructure investment having a big impact on commuting and local economies. Steve recounts being told, in the still economically struggling old East Germany, that routes like the Elbe Radweg and, to a lesser extent, the Saale Radweg, were helping economic development in communities for ten to twenty kilometres either side of the river. The Elbe Radweg, is, it seems, the most popular cycle route amongst German cyclists.
Mind you, things are not necessarily as perfect everywhere: even in the Netherlands they found a car parked in a cycle lane, just one.
Travel by bicycle, says the author, is as much about the people you meet as well as the places you see. Had he included “the beer you drink,” he’d have covered most bases. Given their limited language skills it may come as a surprise that they managed to talk to anyone other than themselves. Even so, there are plenty of exchanges with locals who understand more or less. On the other hand, I do not believe Steve’s assertion that, given another couple of half-litres of beer he could have become fluent in Hungarian.
The back-story is tragic, but, for Steve, this is not about living in the past. Rather, it is about learning exploring by bicycle in the light of the past. True, they do encounter one waitress who seems to have learned elements of her table-side manner in some of Germany’s darker days, but there are clearer links to the past, too. Travel by bicycle, often away for the tourist trail, results in contact with a Germany – and a Czech Republic - less known (although they do ‘hit’ major tourist sites as well). “But why are you here?” they are asked in one small town. However, it also brings a different perspective to both cycling and how we perceive things. Europe and its past can look very different from Central Europe.
History, travel, and observation are woven together. This is well-done, but I had to stop and think a few times when the theme moved from one to the other. The format works, because it reveals the stories, rather than focussing in depth in turn. You can leap between the elements.
Needless to say, you read the whole lot for a review. I’m pleased I did. Alternating between tragedy and humour, joy and despair, there’s opinion, too, which I did not find too ‘preachy.’ There are differences of opinions and one open argument, but by and large the trip passes peacefully. This is in spite of the two cyclists being very different types of people – which makes for a nice contrast.
Mark is a ceramic artist of international repute, and often drags a not unwilling Steve into art galleries, small and great. Both like the idea of soaking up a bit of culture, especially at the local level. Steve points out that, with a choice of Picasso or Pinkus Muller beer, in Munster, you can see Picasso in many European cities, but Pinkus Muller has only one brewery tap.
Although some sections have a challenging subject, I enjoyed Steve’s laid-back writing style. He’s not one for seeing a challenge around every corner – although a hundred miles into the Bohemian Moravian Highlands (big rolling hills, rather than mountains) in over thirty-three degrees of heat is not to be sneezed at. Mind you, I can almost hear him slurping down that pure Czech beer in the evening.
An enjoyable, informative read, I thought, one that took me to places and events I knew nothing of.
Steve tells me that whilst you can get book on Amazon, he can send you a signed copy if you like, at a bit of a discount. Feel free to contact him via https://stephendyster.wixsite.com/burslemlidicebike/contact or the contact details on www.sevendaycyclist.com . There should be a digital version some time, but this is not imminent.
REVIEW PUBLISHED DECEMBER 2019