Eating naturally

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Sugar and wheat free blueberry cheesecake from Helsinki based wellberries.com

With the advent of modern agriculture and processed food industries producing cheap and convenient foods designed with that perfect bliss point of sugar, fat and salt, the amount of refined carbohydrates in our diets has increased dramatically in recent decades. Carbohydrate is broken down into sugar, and insulin created in the pancreas is released to reduce harmful high levels of sugar in the blood by storing it as fat. Every gram of carbohydrate must be burnt immediately by the body or stored either as fat or glycogen.

As we age our individual genes develop different degrees of intolerance towards carbohydrates, known as insulin resistance, with the body having to produce higher amounts of insulin to be effective, resulting in increasing highs and lows in energy levels after eating. The role of carbs do not satisfy hunger they stimulate it so an insulin resistant person is always hungry and carbs become a food addiction. A high carb diet eaten for decades by those with insulin resistance inevitably leads to ill health.

A clear warning sign is the accumulation of fat around the belly but the body will only burn its own fat stores when there is no carbohydrate source available. Eating too many refined carbs makes blood sugar levels sharply rise and fall resulting in hunger soon after and more food consumption. A cycle of dependency that makes it impossible to lose weight long term without experiencing strong feelings of hunger.

Restricting carbs and eating more natural healthy fats means the body’s metabolism adapts to run on fat and will easily switch to burning its own excess fat stores in between meals, particularly for example while sleeping. Thus on a low carb, high fat diet a person is easily able to quickly return to their ideal weight without pangs of hunger or feelings of low energy.

Today there is a great deal of research in relation to carbohydrate intolerance and how the root of many modern diseases stem from obesity, inflammation and the mismatch with our Palaeolithic genes. Important thinkers such as science writer Gary Taubes and Nina Teicholz have investigated and helped us understand the role of calories in the diet and the wrong hypothesis of fat being bad for us through extensive studies in ‘Good calories, bad calories’ and ‘The big fat surprise’. After developing type 2 diabetes, sports science professor Tim Noakes the definitive author of carbohydrate loading in his classic book ‘Lore of running’ came to the realisation of the error of his ways. Today Tim Noakes is one of the foremost intellectual voices in the world raising awareness of the dangers of too much carbohydrates in the diet.

In short you won’t go amiss cutting down on cereals, particularly wheat. It’s not the same as it was due to modern refining and faster dough fermentation. Wheat acts like sugar in the bloodstream, so if you are struggling with a belly it’s a good one to miss. Rye is less harmful but not ideal either and traditional bread making using stone-ground & sour-dough are better alternatives.

It should be noted that many people eat pasta and bread on a daily basis without suffering from runaway obesity, so it’s likely for many of us a certain amount of cereal is OK in our diet. It all depends on how insulin resistant they have become. Pasta is traditionally a small dish in a several course menu and rarely a meal based on one large bowl of pasta as has become common in the West, and 100 years ago sugar was rare and expensive. So use your sense in reducing these food stuffs and try reserving them for special treats instead.

Other animals get sick if given the wrong food and we are no different, we are omnivores and can eat vegetables, meat, fish, dairy, fruit, nuts and seeds, but should limit cereals, sugar and heavily processed foods such as vegetable oils. It’s a long delayed return to the way humans are supposed to eat informed by how our ancestors ate, the way many of us eat today is a diet fad invented by industrial food producers.

More information
Big fat lies
Gary Taubes
Nina Teicholz
Real Meal Revolution

The Big Fat Fix documentary examining the origin of the Mediterranean diet and lifestyle and how you can apply the latest thinking in diet, lifestyle and exercise to our modern lives.
http://www.thebigfatfix.com/

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A short history of refined carbs

Looking at high energy carbohydrates from an evolutionary, disease, sports and science perspective.

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”
Hippocrates

Ancestral Health

Global cooling around the last modern ice age, 2.5 million years ago, meant early humans found fruits and vegetables scarcer to find and helped bring about the adaption of hunting and gathering, which more than anything else evolved our bodies via natural selection to be the way they are today. Archaeology shows early humans learnt to control fire about one million years ago and cooking sites appear frequently around 400,000 years ago. Cooking food enabled us to obtain enough energy to evolve our uniquely large brains and distinguish ourselves from other species through intelligence.

Fossil records show hunter-gatherers were tall, healthy, with little tooth decay and when not killed by another human or animal had a good chance of living into their 7th decade. Just 200,000 years ago modern humans evolved as hunter-gatherers, eating wild animals for fat and protein with staples of fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds. The human genome has changed little since, instead Cultural Evolution has taken over as the dominant factor of change.

Hunter-gatherer societies have very different diets from one another, far Northern climates naturally get less fruit and vegetables during winter months and traditionally survive on a more animal and fish based diet, think of the Inuit who are healthy living on almost exclusively fish and animals. What they have in common is not containing processed food, sugar or high-energy farmed cereal grains that form the basis of a lot of the modern human diet.

Agricultural Revolution

Funnily some theories suggest we started farming primarily to get a reliable source of alcohol to get drunk, either way it was only 12,000 years ago that we started eating grains in any quantity, with the result of reduced height, a fatter, more sickly lifestyle and shorter lifespan. Although dying younger was not purely due to diet, other factors such as famine and disease from farming animals were also components.

In ancient Egypt people ate similar food to the recommended ‘Mediterranean diet’ of whole-wheat bread, barley, fruit, vegetables and olive oil but very little meat, (Mediterranean people do not all eat the same food). Analysis of their mummified bodies reveals a lot of sickness, obesity, heart disease, tooth decay and short life expectancy dropping from 40 to 20 years. The Pharaoh’s daughter Princess Ahmose-Meryet-Amon who died in 1550 BC most likely led a sedentary life with an energy rich diet, a CT scan of her mummified body revealed atherosclerosis or heart disease.

“Though we are not so degenerate but that we might possibly live in a cave or a wigwam or wear skins today, it certainly is better to accept the advantages, though so dearly bought, which the invention and industry of mankind offer.”
Henry David Thoreau, Walden

The Industrial Revolution brought about improvements in the quantity and quality of food available to people, it increased childhood life expectancy, made us less sick and probably taller and heavier too.

In 1862 William Banting was an obese London undertaker, his Doctor William Harvey restricted the amount of carbohydrates in his diet and his weight loss was so successful that he published a diary that became very popular and resulted in ‘Banting’ becoming a regular word in English to mean dieting by restricting carbs, but has since been lost from common usage. Banting was the standard way of treating weight loss in all major European and North American medical schools until the end of World War 2.

The dominant Austro/German hormonal model of obesity and insulin production as a result of carbohydrate consumption was largely forgotten after WW2 as America and Britain lead the post wars field of science and were only interested in saving Germany’s nuclear scientists, not its medical ones. The mainstream thinking was now based around the earlier Energy Balance model which treated all calories the same as if the human body was a problem of physics rather than biology.

Industrial Agriculture

Bread and porridge could feed more people and be stored for longer. Throughout the post war period US industrial cereal farming gained greater power in political lobbying. They funded the scientific research they wanted to see and helped hide the studies that didn’t fit with their business model. Heart disease appeared in the 1920s and soared with the post WW1 popularity of smoking, the cereal industry was complicit in promoting the high carbohydrate and vegetable seed oil food fad through manufacturing the fear of saturated fat.

Bad Science

In 1953 Ancel Keys published his famous study purporting to show a relationship between dietary fat, cholesterol and the risk of heart attack. Of 22 countries in the study he cherry picked just 7 that supported his theory, in actual fact there was no correlation at all, nor did he factor in the huge rise in cigarette smoking that coincided with the sudden rise in heart disease. He never actually treated a patient for heart disease and failed to prove causality through randomized clinical trials.

Despite the unproven assertions, criticisms and warnings from respected professionals the 1977 US Senate under Nixon based its dietary recommendations on the discredited science of Ancel Keys, it also boosted the market for US cereal growers.

Around the world people took the American guidelines as the truth without looking critically enough at the evidence. The corresponding high carb, low fat diet with cereal consumption at the base of the nutritional food pyramid has coincided with the dramatic rise in obesity and diabetes since 1980.

Today the Clintons both eat a Paleo diet as does Jeb Bush, so despite the lobbyists desire for maintaining status quo, the next leader of the most powerful country in the world is likely to be avoiding eating grains.

Sports

Around the same time in 1972 the nutritionist Dr Robert Atkins published his book ‘Diet Revolution’ promoting the idea that carbohydrates, not fats are the cause of obesity. But this clashed with the politics driving dietary advice and he was largely ignored and discredited at the time. But Atkins inspired 3 decades of scientific research through Drs Volek, Phinny and Westman who wrote ‘The new Atkins’, ‘The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate living’ and ‘The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance’ aimed at athletes performing at the highest levels of competition.

A competitive edge leads to success and sports nutrition is often way ahead of the general public, partly due to research but also because many endurance athletes on high carb loading diets, energy gels etc are often the first and most unlikely victims for weight gain, diabetes and ill health.

Today no.1 tennis star Novak Djokovic follows a Paleo diet, the All Blacks NZ Rugby World Champions eat healthy fats and no sugar and the Australian Cricket team also eat low carb, high fat for health and performance reasons. Dr Phil Maffetone is a rare genius sports trainer having used low carbs and fat adaption since the 1970s including coaching Mark Allen to become the greatest triathlete of all time winning 6 Hawaiian Ironman World Championships in the 1990s.

Science

“The diet-heart idea [the notion that saturated fats and cholesterol cause heart disease] is the greatest scientific deception of our times. This idea has been repeatedly shown to be wrong, and yet, for complicated reasons of pride, profit and prejudice, the hypothesis continues to be exploited by scientists, fund-raising enterprises, food companies and even governmental agencies. The public is being deceived by the greatest health scam of the century.”
George Mann, M.D. co-director of the Framingham Heart Study and one of the greatest nutritionists of the century.

Today important thinkers such as science writer Gary Taubes have investigated and helped us understand the role of calories in the diet and the wrong hypothesis of total cholesterol being bad for us through extensive studies in ‘Good calories, bad calories’ and ‘Why we get fat’.

After developing type 2 diabetes, sports science Professor Tim Noakes the definitive author of carbohydrate loading in his classic book ‘Lore of running’ came to the realisation of the error of his ways. Today Tim Noakes is one of the foremost intellectual voices in the world raising awareness of the dangers of too much carbohydrates in the diet.

Food consists of three macro-nutrients, protein, fats and carbohydrates, two are essential for survival, the third is completely unnecessary as glucose can be made in the liver. Every gram of carb must be burnt immediately as fuel or stored as fat or glycogen, insulin is created in the pancreas to store blood sugar as fat in order to reduce harmful blood sugar levels. Fats and proteins on other hand are essential for building, developing and maintaining the body’s structures and in addition can be used as energy sources by the body.

Due to our genetic make-up all humans have a different degree of insulin resistance or carb intolerance and the more severe the more difficulty the body has in processing carbs. The role of Carbs do not satisfy hunger they stimulate it so an insulin resistant person is always hungry and carbs become a food addiction. A high carb diet eaten for decades by those with insulin resistance inevitably leads to ill health.

It should be noted that many people eat pasta and bread on a daily basis without suffering from runaway obesity, so it’s likely for many of us a certain amount of cereal is ok in our diet. It all depends on how insulin resistant the individual has become. Pasta is traditionally one dish in a several course menu and rarely a meal based on one large bowl of pasta as has become common in the West.

Cholesterol itself is not bad for you, it serves many vital functions in the body and total high cholesterol has no correlation with death, in fact for over 50s there is a correlation between high total cholesterol and a longer life. Studies show small types of LDL cholesterol are getting lodged in inflamed arteries causing arterial damage and so it makes sense to both target the cause of the inflammation in the first place and reduce the amount of smaller LDL particles. It is thought that the high levels of blood sugar and unnatural vegetable seed oils are the cause of this inflammation in the body. A high carbohydrate diet increases the dangerous small LDL cholesterol where as a high fat diet will increase the total cholesterol, but this is not necessarily bad as long as the increase is in HDL and the larger fluffy LDL particles as opposed to the smaller LDL particles.

Conclusion

It’s often said that genetics holds the gun but environment pulls the trigger. Processed food is designed to hook you with a calculated bliss point of sugar, fat and salt. Today with industrial farming and genetically modified high yield cereals the average American eats about 60 kg of wheat per year. The cereal and sugar food industry like the tobacco industry before has grown rich and powerful on the illness of humanity and statins are now a tens of billions dollar industry supporting the failed science of high carb health. Relatively speaking we only started to eat farmed cereals yesterday, yet today we base our nutritional guidelines on them.

To lose weight the body needs to burn its own fat stores and it will only do that when there is no carbohydrate source available. Eating too many refined carbs makes the blood sugar levels rise and fall sharply resulting in hunger soon after and more food consumption, a cycle of carb dependency that makes it impossible to lose weight long term without experiencing strong feelings of hunger. Restricting carbs to low levels and eating fats as the main source of calories means the body adapts to run on fats and will easily switch to burning its own excess fat stores in between meals, particularly for example while sleeping. Thus on a low carb, high fat diet a person is easily able to return to their ideal weight without pangs of hunger or feelings of low energy.

Other animals get sick if given the wrong food and we are no different, we are omnivores and can eat vegetables, meat, fish, fruit, nuts and seeds, but should limit cereals, sugar and processed foods. It’s a long delayed return to the way humans are supposed to eat informed by how our ancestors ate, the way most of us eat today is the diet fad invented by industrial food producers.

In short you won’t go amiss cutting down on cereals, particularly wheat. It’s not the same as it was due to modern refining and faster dough fermentation. Wheat acts like sugar in the bloodstream, so if you are struggling with a belly it’s a good one to miss. Rye is less harmful for both gluten and blood sugar, but not ideal either. Traditional bread making using stone-ground & sour-dough are healthier alternatives.

Today there is a great deal of research in relation to carbohydrate and gluten and how the root of many modern diseases stem from obesity, inflammation and the mismatch with our Paleolithic genes. Warning signs are appearing from leading intellectuals about what might be discovered in relation to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, metabolic syndrome, depression, allergies, alzheimer’s, dementia, ADHD and cancer.

In a warming world with ever limited resources the implications are profound and difficult to predict. How do we afford the health care for a population living longer but suffering more from morbid illness originating from diet and lifestyle and how do we fix a modern medicine that treats symptoms over prevention. The countries that solve these problems are the ones that will most likely prosper.

More information

‘The story of the Human body: Evolution, Health and Disease’ by Daniel E. Lieberman

Dr Michael Eades: Obesity in Ancient Egypt

Collection of best talks from around the internet on LCHF curated by Professor Tim Noakes

‘Bad Science’ by Ben Goldacre

The Art and Science of low carbohydrates

‘Grain Brain’ by David Perlmutter

Fat Head documentary

Doctor Aseem Malhotra, Honorary Consultant Cardiologist

Dr Wolfson: The Paleo Cardiologist

Mark’s daily apple, Primal living in the Modern World

Chris Kresser: Ancestral health and paleo nutrition

Robb Wolf: The paleo solution

Dr John Briffa, natural medicine

Dr Mercola, natural medicine

Phil Maffetone sports trainer

Cereal Killers movie

Run on fat movie

Cycling the Grand Union Canal

“You’ve got a mad boyfriend”, her work mates told her, but I’d decided to cycle the Grand Union Canal between my home in London and my parents near Birmingham many years before after looking at a British Waterways map and wondering if many people still made the entire journey. “By narrow boat it must be snail slow” I thought to myself, but seeing as they were originally designed to be pulled by horses, a bridleway must exist along the whole route, or so I hoped.

A break in work and sunny spring weather left me with no excuses not to and so after a slow morning of getting myself ready, I didn’t set out until almost midday. I rode out first along the Wandle river from Morden in South London to join the Thames and work my way through central London to the Brentford canal junction.

Having ridden through London quite regularly I didn’t bother checking my route first, and after Wandsworth I soon found myself getting lost in London’s ‘village’ of Barnes. Very beautiful as it is, riding in circles was not a good start. So I set the compass for west and tackled the traffic until I was safely back on the bridleway through Kew.

I forgo the idea of wearing lycra as I thought I’ll only be averaging about 9 miles per hour on the canal and dressing like a racing cyclist would attract ridicule from the people idly sitting in pub beer gardens watching me pass. However I didn’t look the average commuter either more like a hiker with a bicycle heavily laden with tent and panniers. But one thing I hadn’t planned for were the parts where I had to carry myself up steps. It must have looked odd to the dog walkers and joggers getting ready for the London marathon but I secretly wanted someone to ask me what I was doing so I could share my little epic plan.

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Brentford docks

I felt genuinely excited to be standing at the start of the canal near the old docks on a busy Brentford street photographing the signpost like a sad train-spotter but knowing myself the significance of this otherwise unremarkable starting point that was probably lost on the passing tired people with shopping bags and white vans looking irate at red lights. I was looking forward to spending some time, lost in time on the sleepy old England of the canal.

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Silicon canal

The canal network begun in the late 18th Century by private finance and without modern technology, it eventually became the Grand Union canal in 1929 as the result of many competing independent canals, it finally amalgamated as a ‘union’ to form a continuous link between London and Birmingham.

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Hanwell locks

When I lived in Hanwell 8 years before I used to run to Brentford to keep fit and so I was surprised how much the area had changed. From a scruffy industrial area had sprouted new waterside flats, the sort of modern looking apartments that are now appearing everywhere in the UK since people have decided the leisure value of these old waterways that were once at the heart of industry.

“The area is definitely showing new prosperity” I thought to myself as the canal snaked a quiet path below the main A4 and M4 roads, tube lines and tall mirrored offices of multinational corporations. But soon this gave way to woodland, peace, discarded beer cans and graffiti. A kid on his bike decided to shoot pass me up the hill beside Hanwell flight of locks, but this time I decided to leave him to it. I had a great feeling of relaxation and of the need to take my time and adjust to the rhythm of life on the waterway.

This was familiar territory for me as I headed out passing through west London’s Indian & Pakistani community of Southall, and London started its sprawl passing Hillingdon where I had raced several times on the custom built cycle race circuit. I got to the junction with the eastern stretch of the Grand Union and stopped on top of the steep bridge to pause and savour the map. A man sat on the post eating his lunchtime sandwiches asked me where I was going and so now someone else knows that there is a cyclist trying to get to Birmingham along the canal and I feel a bit better for it.

Along this section the local council had erected special gates across the tow-path to deter motorbikes, normally cycles easily pass through these but not ones with panniers and it quickly became a chore to try and lift the bike through while passing it ahead of me and not let it’s heavy weight allow it fall straight in the canal. I wasn’t making much more progress than one of the narrow boats going the same way it started to make me think this could take much longer than I first anticipated.

London slowly disappeared just showing itself occasionally with sightings of the overland tube and centres of Rickmansworth and Watford. The canal was quite busy along this section with plenty of people taking their lunch breaks from nearby factories, fisherman and the odd dodgy looking character.

It also amazed me how many people seem to be living on the canal, many seemed to be moored for so long that they had sprouted their own gardens on the tow-path and created little homes. This is probably a sign of today’s crazy house prices, for many people this is probably their best chance of owning a home.

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Canal pub, Shalweornot?

People of all types were living on the canal and its tempting to make sweeping generalisations just to keep yourself amused. On this section there seemed to be a fair few late middle aged men with unwashed long hair with their shirts off in the sun tinkering with motorbikes or work benches besides filthy looking pits of boat dwellings. There were also the clean looking holiday makers hiring a boat for a week and the happy retired couples with neatly painted boats designed to appeal to the twee Irish gypsy style with names like ‘Autumn Sunrise’ or ‘Shallweorwot’ that suggested am optimistic rebirth of life. All except one I saw for sale that was a bit run down but called the ‘Spark of Life’, for which obviously had been lost for this owner.

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Tranquil canal

The weather was gloriously sunny and as I sat for some lunch on a quiet bend in the shade I wondered if I might have finally shaken off London. My legs were already feeling a little of the ride and I was really hungry and ate half of the chorizo sausage I’d packed for the trip. From here the canal seemed to be increasingly reserved for the gardens of the rich. The huge sweeping lawns of luxury and beauty must be a full time job for a busy gardener and lining the banks sat hordes of fisherman, almost motionless gnomes staring at the water ripples without a thought of work. And on a day like today, why would any sane person?

Finally getting somewhere I passed through Hemel Hempsted, or some might say, finally reaching nowhere. But to me this was another familiar stretch having cycled from here before to Leighton Buzzard about 3 years before. One of the great things about cycling the canal is how it links up to the train stations and so its easy to head off in one direction and then safely sit on the train home. But not this time.

Dwelling on this thought, the Romans were the first to make a substantial link between the capital and the Midlands. Watling street runs from London through St Albans and Towcester all the way to Holyhead for passage onto Ireland. Later on during the Industrial Revolution the canals supplied manufactured goods and coal throughout the UK and onto the world empire. During the world wars they were used in supplying military equipment and supplies from the manufacturing heartlands around Birmingham and Manchester.

Later the train made the canals redundant. Watling street was renamed the A5 and car and lorry took the glory away from railway’s golden age, eventually eating up a wide chunk of countryside with the roaring M1. Today the canal is kept company by the M1, A5 and train line as they rejoin at various points. When I have the time I prefer taking the train to London or driving the A5 which is far more interesting than the M1 rat run.

Up through the canal town of Berkhampsted and the idyllic village of Tring, now the countryside really sets in and the modern world begins to fade away. The path degrades into grass tracks and cobbled antique bridges that need walking across and great care taken to avoid falling in the canal. It was late afternoon and I wanted to cover half the distance before settling down for the night. There are also no camp-sites around this area and I decided to ride until sunset and find myself a hidden spot to pitch my tent.

I had a welcome break in Leighton Buzzard and grabbed a carbohydrate, protein take away to eat on a curve in the last rays of golden sun. From here to Milton Keynes the path has been upgraded to tarmac making progress much easier and my average speed again began to rise.

The ride was now starting to become a mission to complete in two days and I found myself sinking into the deep trance of long distance cycling. My mind floating between different subjects but somehow not holding onto anything too long and allowing me to gaze into the tranquil scenes of hedges, fields, hills and distant churches. Just snapping awake in time to dodge ducks chilling out on the bank and slowing to unclip my pedals to react to whatever state the track was like under the many old bridges along the route.

Milton Keynes was also familiar, I’d stayed here a month, several years ago for work and again I was riding old tracks I used to jog. The centre of Milton Keynes, the town of concrete cows is surprisingly country like and nature friendly with bicycle paths everywhere. Although still being close to lots of suburbs its not suitable for rough camping, so I rode on further. The sun was setting and I found out later my shins were being feasted on by gnats. I eventually found a hidden stretch of woods before Wolverton, where I locked my bike to a tree and settled down for the night hidden away in a small patch I’d cleared of branches.

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Campsite north of MK

Surprisingly I slept right through until 8am and awoke finding the canal busy with people cycling to work. I tested my muscles to determine their condition and to discover if I was up to the long final stretch. My Dad, John had arranged to meet me at the junction village of Braunston about 30 miles away and so I had a target for the morning. Braunston is nowadays a sleepy little place but it must have been something significant in the canal’s heyday as there has been mileposts to there all along the route and not as you would expect to the cities of Birmingham, Coventry, Oxford or Leicester.

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Mural near Cosgrove

Wolverton was undergoing path resurfacing, which meant I had to ignore tow path closed signs and ride over bone shaking stones. I’d covered the last 2 miles at walking pace and expended lots of energy in doing so. The ride soon petered out into full on sleepy countryside, and lost grassy tracks with hardly a soul about. The canal people here were a mixture of German tourists and hippies who seems to have made a good effort in dropping out, but not from avoiding the clichés of looking like a hippy with all the whimsical dream catchers, wind chimes and beware of the fairy signs they are attracted to.

Cosgrove was a typical honey coloured Cotswold like village but without the tourist buses and further on Stoke Bruerne was a delightful place to find, a real canal town next to a flight of 7 locks. It seems to live in and celebrate its canal history while avoiding being spoilt or even discovered much. If I was writing a guidebook, then this is where I’d recommend staying overnight, there are some lovely Bed and Breakfast cottages here, canal pubs, cafés and an interesting looking canal museum.

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Wold bridge

I ambled along, one hand on the bars eating an ice cream and enjoying the sun. To my disappointment I couldn’t cycle any further at Blisworth as there was no tow-path through the 3056 yard tunnel. There is however a bridleway that goes over several fields, where in the past horses accompanying the canal were taken around to the other end, while professional ‘leggers’ would lie on their backs and walk the boat along the tunnel walls.

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Blisworth tunnel

Back on the canal I was slipping behind on schedule to meet my Dad, who had already had his second breakfast and was now riding as slow as he could to Braunston. The canal was only offering a good surface in patches and I found myself in lost tracts of Northamptonshire countryside, with only occasional lone boats and beautiful yellow rape fields reflecting in the blossom covered surface water skin.

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Cosgrove to Stoke Bruerne

The heat and distance were hitting me hard and I slipped again into that trance, that mix of peaceful enjoyable high and boredom, where you are free to contemplate freely on life and how lucky you are to be able to get so happily disconnected from reality. I must have passed through the town of Daventry but I didn’t even notice it, the path disintegrated almost to nothing and I wished that I could have swapped my cycle in the imaginary team car for a lightweight mountain bike with suspension. At times the path was so bad I was riding through the canal, and many times I had to walk just to keep upright.

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Cosgrove to Stoke Bruerne

Another tunnel just before Braunston forced me ride up over the hill away from the canal. There were no signposts as to where to go but I felt pretty sure that tunnel would be straight and so by following the bridleway for a mile or so found my way, descending into Braunston, passing several lovely pubs and climbing some horrible narrow steps that prevented me from turning back to revisit them. I met my Dad, John here and together we hoped there would be another pub just down the way.

There wasn’t and the ride again became just a path for the steady footed only. The heat blazed down and our minds concentrated purely on keeping out of the water trying to call us in. The cold, wet brown canal constantly next to you is a powerful reality check preventing you from relaxing too much and falling asleep. The thought of trying to pull myself, bike and panniers from the canal was probably the worst thing that could happen on the whole trip. Still it was comforting to think an unexpected cold dip was much better than playing dice with white vans and lorries on the road.

Most of my energy had been spent and I found myself contemplating steak and chips and a pint of ale for the next few hours as we searched for pub gardens. Its amazing how your mind can empty during these times and the necessities of life become all absorbing. The huge marinas of Napton on the Hill moored multitudes of uninhabited boats waiting for their part time owners to return in the Summer.

The first pub was closed, we stopped anyway and scoffed the remains of bread, oranges and fruitcake that we had left. Time was getting on and doubt was expressed about completing the journey in 2 days. The path since Braunston had been really tough and unless things improved drastically finishing today looked bleak and I was contemplating a third day.

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Opening a lock

Surprisingly a short break later and the path did improve drastically. Now we heading downhill on one of the Sustran national cycle routes. We flew along just touching our brakes as we sped past flights of locks, fisherman and hippies. Occasionally the path disappeared into rutted grass, but we were now energised from the descent. As the day cooled slightly, the rolling countryside took on the quality of coffee table photography books.

A pint of orange juice before continuing on and the canal slowly became busier as we pedalled into southern Warwickshire. Many people were converging on the canal for the evening, to relax, walk or cycle. The section between Leamington Spa and Warwick was excellent, fast to ride and happily used by locals for getting home and fit. But after Warwick some idiot from the council had decided to pave the route in thick gravel, making riding just about impossible. How can this be called path improvement? Do they not take cycling seriously?

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Hatton locks

I’d been across Hatton lock flight by road many times before as a teenager with the Cyclist’s Touring Club or CTC, but I’d never stopped before to explore and fully appreciate them. There are 21 locks here going right up the hillside and its amazing to think anyone would dare try to tackle then in a narrow boat, let alone use it as the main trade route across the nation.

Passing the last tunnel at Shrewly the path again resorted to churned ruts of solid mud, at one point almost throwing us into the river as we put safety back a little in order to chase the dying light into Brum. We rode on past Lapworth and onto the lovely Knowle locks, which I’d also never seen before even though I’d grown up in the area, I felt slightly ashamed by how lovely they were now that I was seeing the area from a completely different angle.

Here along the banks we tore along at a speed only possible when you can smell home. Several herons saw us approaching fast and took off flying further up the canal only to stop in our path and again have to take off, this continued for about 2 miles much to our amusement. Here also was a pub called the Heron’s Nest, which had been a notorious cyclist’s hang out in the 1960’s for my Dad called ‘The Cat in the Window’.

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The tow path ended for us at Catherine de Barnes, we didn’t fancy riding into Birmingham along the canal at night, dodging drunks and bored kids, I’ll save that for another day. Instead we headed down through the NEC and the airport, to get home at 10pm, sunburnt, sore, dizzy but with huge smiles across our faces.

The canals are a wonderful green and blue network that winds across the whole of Britain. They have been forgotten a long time but today are coming back into significance. They are hugely important for our leisure and offer solutions to combat the problems of traffic congestion and the biggest dilemma of our age, climate change. I think our canal paths should all be restored completely for cyclists and walkers, for both leisure and commuting. I’m sure more and more people will then consider riding this route and the canal will become more popular.

Looking on the internet the next day I see there is now a 48 hour running race along the entire length of the canal which according to the website is the toughest running race in Britain. It didn’t come as much comfort to my tired legs to think other people were running the same distance is the same time as I had cycled it.

May 1-2 2007

 

Links

My photos
http://www.flickr.com/photos/stevemonty/sets/72157600182736171/

Grand Union Canal running race
http://www.gucr.co.uk/

Grand Union Canal
http://www.canaljunction.com/canal/grand_union.htm