Biking gets better and better

Getting a motorbike was one of the best things I’ve done. Every journey becomes an enjoyable adventure. And with the fabulous summer weather, I can enjoy the sunshine with a steady, cooling breeze and smell new-mown grass and fragrant oilseed rape as I thrumble along.

PampicLast week, I went out for a ride with Pam Tod (pictured left) who inspired me to get a bike, and Chris Williams, the bloke who told me about the Enfield for sale. When it’s sunny, Wales is such a brilliant country for motorcycling.

Two milestones since the last blog have been:

1) Taking Charlotte as a pillion passenger on a proper trip. She got togged up in her very attractive black-and-olive outfit with black Arai helmet. We crossed the Severn and went to visit friends in Somerset. They didn’t know we had a motorbike so it was a surprise for them when we rumbled up their drive!

Enfield. FromeNow don’t get the idea that I rode there in brown canvas trousers. I simply took them along to wear while we had lunch. For riding, I wore proper, matching kit.

That was a great day and Charlotte enjoyed the ride. And there was that deeply satisfying moment when you get to the toll booth at the Severn bridge and you don’t have to pay!

2) The next big event was riding with my son, Joseph, over the Black Mountain to Llandovery and back, via the A40 and A470, to Bikers’ Corner at Storey Arms.

Storey Arms +2As you can see, he hired a Harley for the day and we started off with breakfast at Franklin’s Cafe at Ogmore by Sea (the place where Pam is chef de cuisine).

Lovely weather, wonderful ride, beautiful scenery and fabulous views from the mountain heights. If you have a son who can ride a motorbike, definitely do this!

Right, gotta dash!

Franklin's 13.07.13

My first pillion passenger

Right then. After a thousand miles on the Enfield …time to carry a passenger.

From the start of this motorbike brainwave, my wife, Charlotte, has been remarkably supportive. She was pleased and interested to hear I was getting a motorbike and took no persuasion at all when it came to riding on the back. So I got the licence, then some experience of riding the Enfield, building skill and confidence. The next thing was to get Charlotte a helmet.

On Bank Holiday Monday, we went out in the Lotus and went for a walk along the dunes near Ogmore. Then it was off to Thunder Road in Bridgend. The parking area outside Thunder Road is like a bike show in itself. There are Harleys, Japanese superbikes, old British classics, all with their own distinctive sounds. If you park a car amongst that lot, it can’t be any old car. It has to be something that’s built for enjoyment rather than mere transport.

Gorgeous machinery.

Gorgeous machinery.

Inside, after walking past some gorgeous, gleaming machinery, we met a nice lady called Rhian who knew all about helmets. She looked at the shape and size of Charlotte’s head, noted that she wore glasses and came up with an all-black Arai that was, apparently, greatly reduced in price at ‘only’ £250. Despite this shock to her purse, Charlotte proceeded to look at biker jackets and trousers. She found a nice, figure-hugging jacket, some leather-and-fabric trousers and a nice pair of gloves. And it was a really beautiful, sunny day.

Charlotte on Enfield

Charlotte in all her glory.

I could hardly wait to get back home and give it a whirl. Charlotte, though, is very practical and said we should wait until the Bank Holiday traffic jams had cleared. She was right, of course.

I pumped the tyres up an extra 2psi and checked the rear shock-absorber setting.  As Charlotte straddled the bike, I told her the drill. Keep your feet on the footrests. Don’t get off until I tell you. Most of all, do lean with me and the bike; do not attempt to ‘correct’ the lean by remaining vertical.

I rode round the block first and then off to the north of Cardiff towards Radyr. Llandaff Fields were golden green in the late-afternoon sun. Pink cherry blossom was blowing like confetti across the deep blue sky. People walking dogs and pushing prams stopped and watched us go by.

At the Radyr roundabout, I turned round, pulled in at a lay-by and stopped the bike. I asked Charlotte if she wanted to go back now. I guessed this would be far enough for her first outing. But no. She was up for more. So on we went, up and down hills, around sweeping bends, the Enfield engine thrumbling and grumbling away.

Back home, safe and sound; Charlotte loved every minute of it. Now she’s planning a surprise visit to friends of hers who don’t yet know about the bike. Looks like this motorcycle lark could become a shared hobby.

More motorbiking!

My motorcycle training was only in March but it already seems to have happened on a different planet. Back then, the world was a dark-grey, bitterly cold sort of place with arctic winds and apocalyptic rain. Motorcycles were fast, four-cylinder things that cut through foul weather with high precision and oodles of Japanese horsepower. It was noisy, cold and highly stressful.

Now, with all tests behind me and a letter ‘A’ on my licence, motorcycling is becoming less difficult and more enjoyable every day. A week ago, I went over the new Severn Bridge to Bristol and visited my brother.

Anthony2 lo.res

Here he is, looking rather James Dean. You can also see that he’s being tempted. Like just about everyone who sees the bike for the first time, he said: “It’s beautiful!”

After Bristol, it was back on the road, Gloucester Road to be precise, and then the M48 which leads to the old Severn Bridge. This is an elegant, old-fashioned bridge from a gentler age. Riding across it on the Enfield, with very little traffic, it was easy to imagine oneself back in the 1960s. I shall just repeat, to the annoyance of car drivers, that, as a motorcyclist, you do not have to pay anything to cross the bridge. You just stop politely at the barrier, exchange a wave, a smile but no money, and the barrier rises for you. Twist the throttle and away you go.

Next stop was Caldicot, home of a couple of friends I hadn’t seen for ages. Yes, the fact that they lived near the old bridge was a deciding factor. Like many I know, Jane in Caldicot grew up around motorbikes and had always liked them. I don’t know why but it seems that most of the people I know turn out to have owned a BSA Bantam in the past.

On Friday, I finally made it up into the Brecon Beacons. Not going to visit anyone, this was just for the ride. Well past Merthyr and approaching Brecon, there is a beauty spot called Storey Arms. I have stopped there many times over the past 20 years and have always felt somewhat inadequate. Like a man in a lounge suit at a black-tie dinner. This is really a place where bikers stop for a rest and a cup of tea and maybe a bite to eat from the burger van. Car drivers are allowed to stop there but they are looked upon with pity. Now, finally, I was properly equipped for Story Arms!

Storey Arms

I rumbled into the lay-by and stopped where I would be able to photograph the bike with a nice background. I bought a cup of tea and immediately got chatting to a bloke called Dave from Staffordshire who was on his way to Somerset. Then two guys from Somerset turn up – one of them on a Triumph. You can just see half the front wheel of the Triumph in the picture.

Then it was on to Hay-on-Wye and lunch at The Granary. Rode home via Clyro, thus touching Radnorshire, which is important.

The weather turned as I was half way home and the A470 had strong crosswinds. Serious buffeting on the bike. This is where the first rule of motorcycling comes in. Well, first rule for me, anyway. The rule is: The bike will go where you look.

So, if there’s something ahead that you want to avoid, like a pothole, don’t look at the pothole, look at the bit of road you want to travel on. It works with buffeting too. Maintain a steady speed and just keep looking at the centre of the lane ahead of you. Well, after 600 words, I think you probably had enough. If you have been, thankyou for reading.

Next time, turning a routine trip into a little adventure and … carrying a pillion passenger for the first time!

Being a biker – my first week

So, I passed my final test on Monday, 15th April. The next day was the first proper spring day of the year. Daffodils, blue sky, gambolling lambs; it was even a bit warm. My wife got home from work a bit early so she could drive me out to a shed on an industrial estate in rural Vale of Glamorgan to collect the Royal Enfield which you can see on the header bar. It’s the black one on the left. 

As we stepped out of the house, me in my full motorbike outfit, we waved to our next-door neighbours before getting into my wife’s Nissan Micra. Well, gives ’em something to think about.

We arrived a bit early, about 5.20pm, This was the scrubby end of the estate where it almost crumbled away into nearby fields. All was quiet. We could hear blackbirds singing and lambs bleating. Then, the cheerful sound of an easy-going, twin-cylinder engine. Along the track came a three-wheel car that looked like a little aeroplane without wings. At the front, you could see the polished cylinder heads and cooling fins of a Citroen 2CV engine. At the wheel, wearing leather jacket and goggles, was Barry, the aircraft engineer who was about to release the motorbike into my possession. 

The handover was brisk and cheery. A handshake and a wave and, within a few minutes, I was chugging along narrow, country lanes with my wife’s little red car in the rear-view mirrors. Once on the A48, we stopped at a filling station and she bought me my first tank of petrol. 

And here I am, back home, safe and sound after my first ride on the Enfield. It was a glorious ride. The following day, I had to be out in the car all day so Thursday was the day 

Enfield home

of my first real trip as a street-legal, qualified biker. There was only one possible destination – Franklin’s Cafe at Ogmore on Sea. This is where Pam the cook introduced me to Chris, the man who knew Barry who had this perfectly maintained Royal Enfield for sale. Pam was a bit of a late convert to motorcycling (but not as late as I was) and had got an Enfield as her first full-size bike. It was Pam, back in January, who said I should spend my newly-found free time and redundancy money on taking up motorcycling. 

And so it was quite an occasion when I rode back into the Vale of Glamorgan and thrumbled onto the seaside cafe’s forecourt. 

Fish and chips and a pot of tea, please Pam!

It's all her fault!  Pam and Nicholas with the Enfield at Franklin's Cafe.

It’s all her fault!
Pam and Nicholas with the Enfield at Franklin’s Cafe.

More of the motorbike story

These days, it’s pretty difficult to get street legal on a motorbike. If I had taken my test at 16 when I had a Raleigh moped, I’d have had a motorbike licence. In those days, all you had

Certsto do was ride round the block while the examiner stood on the street corner. Today, you need to pass four tests. And there’s a certificate for each one.

First, you do Compulsory Basic Training on a125cc machine.  Half a day in a practice yard,  the other half on the road. There’s a lovely feeling of freedom as you go along familiar roads without a metal-and-glass box around you.

Then ‘Step-Up Day’ when you get to grips with a real motorbike. In my case, it was a four-cylinder, 600cc Honda CBF. This is a no-nonsense, precision-engineered speed machine. After a morning’s practice, I was out on the road doing 60 mph. A tiring, stressful but exilharating day.

The Theory Test is absolutely nuts. You go to an office and sit at a desktop computer and you’re given up to 57 minutes to answer some questions on the Highway Code. They are multiple choice, really easy and you can finish that part of the test in less than ten minutes. Then comes the Hazard Perception Test. Fourteen videos, each lasting one minute. The videos are taken from inside a moving car on various roads. You have to click the mouse when you notice a potential hazard and click again when one of them turns into an actual hazard. Click too early, no points. Click too late, reduced points. Click too many times, points taken away. It was sheer luck that I passed that one.

 Module 1 – the motorcycle manoeuvering test. You’re in a big playground scattered with coloured cones. You have to make your powerful motorbike go very slowly and do ‘circus tricks’ such as slalom, figure-of-eight and U-turn. If you make one little mistake, such as put your foot on the ground to steady yourself, you fail. Then, at higher speed, there’s the emergency stop and the swerve. I failed this the first time. My first swerve was not fast enough so I was allowed a second go. I over-compensated, went faster than necessary and clipped the cone I was supposed to miss. Still, second time I was OK.

Mod 1

Here I am, with fellow student, Sean, who also passed his Mod 1 that day.

I could have taken the final test, Mod 2, on 4th April but my wife took me on a surprise trip to Switzerland. When I got back, I had a couple of hours refresher on the Honda. My instructor and I rode from Cardiff to Caerphilly through nigh-on apocalyptic weather at pretty high speed on the dual carriageway. Strong wind, heavy rain, poor visibility and freezing cold. That got me back into it.

And then came the magic day, 15th April 2013, the day I passed my motorbike test. This one is sensible and pretty much what you would expect. It’s on the road and an examiner  rides behind you and informs you, by radio, what you are supposed to do. This test takes about half an hour. When we got back to the test centre, I heard him saying “passed the test” … “licence will be returned to you” … “you can ride straight away”.

And the very next day, I went and collected my Royal Enfield. More about that in the next blog.

What’s all this about a motorbike?

Mod 1

Here I am with a grin on my face next to another grinning chap on a rainy day in Newport, south Wales.This is how it feels when you pass the Mod 1, the motorcycle manoeuvering  test. Having previously passed the CBT and the theory tests, I now have one test to go before I am street legal on a bike. Which bike will it be? This one. A lovely Royal Enfield. My test is on Monday, 15 April.

Wish me well.

Royal Enfield

Me and my bike.

Becoming a biker

Right, so I’ve got the bike, now I have to get a licence.

When I was a young man, in another millennium, passing a motorbike test was easy-peasy. And a lot of young men got killed or badly injured. When I was 16, I had a moped which I rode for a year with ‘L’ plates. At any time, I could have taken a test on that moped and got a motorcycle licence. If I’d done that, then either:

A) I wouldn’t have to go through all the bother of taking the modern tests.

B) I would have died young.


For many years, my driving licence – even when it changed to plastic – had a little symbol of a motorbike on it, showing my provisional entitlement to ride. When my latest licence arrived, I was quite annoyed to see that the little motorbike wasn’t there. I resolved to get it back – and then some!

So first I bought a motorbike. It just sort of happened. I found myself chatting with some middle-aged bikers  in a small engineering workshop in the Vale of Glamorgan, chequebook at the ready, eyeing a gorgeous, gleaming, black-and-chrome machine. How the hell did I get here?

Two days previously, I had been having lunch in my favourite seaside cafe when a bloke turned up on a classic, single-cylinder Royal Enfield from the 1950s . It turned out he was a good friend of Pam, the cafe’s cook, who was a recent convert to motorcycling. Pam introduced the biker as Chris. I told him I had been thinking of getting a bike, probably a Royal Enfield. I wasn’t after a screaming rocket  with vivid stripes and designer aggression, I just had a hankering for a classic motorcycle, something noble and steady.

“I know a man who’s selling one just like that,” said Chris. It was three years old but had been maintained to perfection by an aircraft engineer. It was an all-black, 500cc Royal Enfield Bullet with a pillion seat and a black leather pouch on the front. Pam thought it was destiny.

So I met the owner two days later in Chris’s shed. Turns out he was not merely an aircraft engineer but he had actually rebuilt two Spitfires to full airworthiness. Well, that sold it. My grandfather, Percy Whitehead, worked at Rolls Royce during World War Two. His job was building Merlin engines for Spitfires. I always smile and think of him when I’m at an air show and hear the distinctive Merlin roar as a Spitfire passes overhead. Now, here in front of me, stood a retired Spitfire builder who needed a bit of ready cash. Reader, I gave him the money.

More on the motorbike story in the next blog. Also a shed and garden update!

Yes, I’ve got a motorbike!

Redundancy acquaints a man with the back yard of his mind. This is the part of ourselves that gets scant attention when we go to work every day and always have more urgent things to bother about. But when the distractions of urgency have been removed, one can see this yard and its contents more clearly.

I once spent a week with the British Army in Northern Ireland. This was in the 1990s when the ‘Troubles’ were on and the IRA was still active. I was allowed to see inside a bunker which I shall describe only vaguely but it was a sort of co-ordination centre where there were maps and so on to show what was going on in that troubled province. It was a highly stressful environment because soldiers on the ground relied on information from that bunker. If the information was not correct, was not correctly interpreted or was not passed to the right people at the right time, that could result in people being killed who might otherwise have been saved. Everyday work in this bunker was literally a matter of life and death. In this bunker was a large poster. It did not say ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’, it said:

Don’t do what’s urgent – do what’s important.

I don’t suppose they put that poster up on Day One. It will have been put there after someone had focused on immediate (and relatively trivial) issues instead of the main job and, as a consequence, lives were lost. In the civilian workplace, a total cock-up at the office rarely means anything worse than a lost contract or a tedious job having to be done all over again. This means we can ignore the ‘Do what’s important’ message for year after year without any lives being lost. Except our own.

Royal Enfield

Me and my bike.

So, in the back yard of my mind there are three things – poetry, a shed and a motorbike. The poetry survived, rather like a rose bush in my actual back garden which I discovered after removing a mass of brambles and bindweed which the previous owners had allowed to grow there. The long-term yearnings for a motorbike and a good shed were there as well, obscured by ‘urgent’ concerns.

Yes, it’s a Royal Enfield. More about my motorcycle adventure in my next post.