Friday, June 24, 2016

Ending Our Biking in England

The title of today's blog is a deliberate double-entendre.  In biking from Oxford to Cambridge we have indeed finished this year's biking in England.  But after 7 flats in 8 days of riding, plus short patches of slightly dicey riding and long patches of slow going due to various quirks of Britain's bike route system, our feeling right now is that the next time we come to England -- and all subsequent times, for that matter -- we will probably leave biking out of the picture other than to rent a bike in a seaside town for a little diversion.

It was not a bad trip, just a somewhat frustrating one.  The biggest disappointment was on the day we left Oxford, planning on dropping our luggage at an old coaching inn (now a very comfortable hotel) in Buckingham, and riding to one of England's most famous gardens at Stowe.  But halfway there we had a flat, fixed it, then had another flat soon after.  After fixing that flat, disaster struck:  the bike pump broke.  There was just enough air in the front tire to allow us to sloooowly ride to the next town, where we checked out two sporting goods stores.  Neither had a pump.  Then an employee of another store on her break saw our distress and found a coworker who had biked to work and had a pump.  It wasn't a great one, but it put enough additional pounds of pressure into the tire that we could go a little faster.  More importantly, she showed us on our map where there was a shop that could help us, and would be open on Sunday (why do major equipment failures always happen then?).  It was two miles and many turns of the road away, but we found it and picked up a new and hopefully more robust pump.  Hey, we're in business again.  With 2+ hours gone, however, there was no time for that trip to Stowe Gardens.  Sigh.

Enough grousing.  Now for a better story.  We were biking along and saw this line of youngsters riding horses alongside the country road we were following.  We hopped off to get a photo, and as the adult leader brought up the rear, we asked how old they were, thinking about our 8 and 11-year-old grandkids who take riding lessons in upstate NY.  Her response was that most of them were about 8, "but this one is 23."  As she rode off in a different direction from us, we laughed to realize she thought we were asking about the horses.

Our next day made up for the problems of our start from Oxford.  We visited one of the places in England Jeff has been wanting to visit for ages -- Bletchley Park.  It's not a park as in trees and playgrounds, but rather the name of an estate that the British government bought in 1938 as fear of another world war increased.  It was outside London, which was correctly predicted to be a probable target for German air attacks, but it was easily accessible by train from London, Oxford or Cambridge.

At first in the eccentric manor house, then in wooden "huts" that were later protected by brick "blast walls" in case of an air attack, the Brits assembled one of the greatest collections of mathematical geniuses ever to gather on a single project.  The project, as many of you already know, was the cracking of the German cipher machine known as Enigma.

The Enigma had 3 wheels, later 4 and ultimately even 5 on some models, each of which shifted a letter from itself to another letter.  So A might become Q after one wheel, N after 2, and E after 3, depending on the setting of the wheels.  Each month the Enigma operators got the settings for the coming month, and changed them each morning according to the schedule.  Given the number of changes possible, there were more possible results than there have been seconds since the Big Bang.  The Germans considered it impregnable.  But because a few of the folks using the Enigma machines got lazy, the Poles who started to crack the code and then the Brits who perfected it ended up reading the enemy's mail, as it were.

Yes, crack it they did, these math whizzes and former classics professors and others who were recruited simply because they were very good at puzzles.  The recent movie The Imitation Game does a good job of explaining it, and the movie was in fact filmed inside the old mansion.  A special exhibit had some of their costumes and props on display.  A bust made from slate of their most famous member (and central figure in the movie), Alan Turing, sits in the lobby.

As the effort became more and more involved, still more buildings went up, this time in more bomb-proof cinderblock.  Inside, the museum has re-created a working bombe, the term they used for a device that helped crack the code each day.  By guessing from intercepted messages about certain words -- a message from a weather station might start each day by saying something like "the weather today . . .".  If you had a good hunch that "qwertyu" = "weather," the number of possible rotor settings on a 3-rotor Enigma drops to a manageable 17,576 (26x26x26).   The bombe could assume q=w, w=e, e=a and so on, then apply that to a longer section of text, a process that initially took about 20 minutes.  If it produced gibberish, it wasn't the day's setting.  If it produced German, you had the day's settings and then you started converting every other message that had been intercepted in code that day.  Since the Germans assumed no one could read their encrypted messages, they were sent by wireless by the thousands, and Bletchley Park soon came to know which ones to focus on.

Later in the war, the Germans created an even more complicated machine the Bletchley folks nicknamed the tunny machine, and to break it the British invented the world's first digital programmable computer, Colossus.  And life has never been the same!

Breaking the code allowed the Allies to begin winning the War of the Atlantic by knowing where the U-Boats were located, and either avoiding them with merchant ships or attacking them with planes and destroyers. When the Allies created a massive deception prior to D-Day to convince the Germans that Normandy was a minor diversion and the main attack would come elsewhere, interception of German ciphers allowed the Allies to know that the deception was working splendidly.  A good part of the success of D-Day was due to this deception, which convinced the Germans to not send in reinforcements.  As we were reminded several times at the museum, the efforts spent in this remarkable place shortened the war against Hitler, quite possibly by as much as two years.

As we left the history and drama of Bletchley Park behind us, we soon were back in the British countryside, on small roads that took us to Chicheley Hall. This was yet another country estate turned into a hotel.  It was built about 1725, and was simply charming.

For the remaining 75 miles to Cambridge we rode two days with our luggage and took two "rest" days, one spent biking without luggage and one enjoying England's terrific walking paths.  First, our lowest underpass and narrowest bike trail:

Next, three interesting river crossings.  We wisely took the footbridge with our bike, since the ford itself can be dangerously slippery for a narrow-wheeled bike.  The right span of the bridge in the third photo was actually blown up by Oliver Cromwell to keep King Charles' soldiers from crossing it and attacking London.  It's also one of 4 bridges remaining in Great Britain to have a chapel on the bridge -- that uninteresting stone box halfway across the bridge.

Then there's the thatch, even (in the last photo in this series) on the pub where we had dinner one night.  It's somewhat common to put a thatch or wood figure of an animal on the roof to discourage birds.

Even when you expect history, you sometimes get more than you expected.  We went to the small town of Kimbolton to see Kimbolton Hall, where Katherine of Aragon was imprisoned by Henry VIII until her death.  It's at one end of the town.  At the other end of town is a church which had an open door, so we peeped in.  Another visitor alerted us to the fact that it has the only Tiffany church window in Great Britain.  On our own, we also found two American connections.  One was a plaque to the many American flyers who served at Airbase Kimbolton in WWII.  The other memorialized Edward Wingfield, a local chap who went to Jamestown Virginia in 1607 and was chosen as the first president of that colony, though he later returned to England and died in Kimbolton in 1631, just 95 years after Katherine of Aragon.

After a 1603 half-timbered building in Godmanchester and a 17th century mill in Houghton, it was time to do our last miles into Cambridge along the longest, nicest bike trail we have yet found in England.  It parallels a "busway."  Special buses with extra side wheels run straight on what was once a rail line.  Later in Cambridge we photographed another busway leading south from town, again with a neighboring bikeway.  Oh, if only there had been a few dozen more of these along our route!

Cambridge was also the start of a three-day reunion with good friends Louise and Masaharu.  Their son lives in Amsterdam, but his wife grew up in Cambridge, the daughter of two faculty members in fact.  Together we explored a number of the many colleges that collectively make up the university.  Explored from the outside, that is, since it was exam week and visitors were limited to brief looks at entrances, long looks across the River Cam, or peeks over the walls from St. Mary's, the highest point in town.

Cambridge certainly has a lot of interesting old architecture and statuary, but it also had easy access to the country, as we discovered in a walk to Grantchester along the Cam River.

The weather was less than cooperative, so we spent a bit of time in museums.  The Whipple Museum of the History of Science was a small and quirky one.  About half the collection consisted of important artifacts, such as this EDSAC 2 computer built in the 1950s at the University.  A room full of electronics such as this now fits into a single computer chip!  The other half of the collection was devices used over the years as teaching aids in science classes, such as this collection of models of horse's mouths.

We spent three days with Louise and Masaharu, after which they rejoined their son's family and we stayed on another day and a half.  With good weather on the first of these, we spent hours exploring the Botanical Garden and enjoying a picnic lunch there. 

Thanks to the wet weather, we actually spent two afternoons in the Fitzwilliam Museum, one with our friends and one on our own.  It was time well spent.  First off, it's a beautiful building, an artistic setting to the artwork.

It's also a fine collection.  Downstairs were items from the ancient world, and the Egyptian items were of particular interest, all over 3,000 years old.

Upstairs were gems like this portrait of Bishop Laud, King Charles I's right-hand man, by Anthony Van Dyke, and another of Thomas Hardy by Augustus Edwin John.  When Hardy saw this painting, he said he wasn't sure if he actually looked like that, but he certainly felt like the image of himself that John had painted.

Some years ago we both took a course at the University of Washington on early English novels.  Perhaps the most interesting work was Pamela, the first blockbuster novel in English, written in1740 by Samuel Richardson.  We were therefore amused by several paintings the museum had, illustrating dramatic moments in the novel.  A moody painting captured the Victorian fascination with death in James Pryde's The Death Bed.

There were several Impressionist works, including these two by Alfred Sisley and Claude Monet.

And of course there were Dutch and Flemish paintings to get us in the proper frame of mind for our trip to Holland, our next stop after Cambridge.  First is one from the always odd Pieter Breughel the Younger, showing us a peasant festival, then an almost modern-looking landscape by Salomon van Ruysdael, and finally a view of Scheveningen, a town we will be staying in (presumably with no beached whales that day) in a week and a half.

We'll close with Ford Madox Brown's evocative The Last of England, inspired by the many English who emigrated to New Zealand and Australia in the late 19th century, when this was painted.  And now it is the Last of England for us as well.  We have an evening sailing from Harwich, which we will reach by train from Cambridge, and in the morning we will wake up in Holland.  Talk to you next from there!

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