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17th January 2005

Winter Rides 5 - Cold Christmas

You wait three days for the frost to clear, just so that you can get blinded by the sun. Martin Gelder goes in search of a Cold Christmas...

It's funny how the mind can squirrel away apparently useless information and then unearth it when the time is ripe.

A few years ago - ok, ten years ago, to be exact - I spent a winter commuting between Cambridge and North West London. I had a variety of routes to choose from, the selection depending on mood, weather, bike being used, and so on. One of those routes used to follow the A10 north from Hertford, passing through the road-dirt encrusted villages of Thundridge, High Cross and Collier's End before peeling off on to a b-road at Puckeridge. In between the "Bypass Now" posters that punctuated the A-road was a sign that always caught my eye ("Careful; you'll have someone's eye out with that sign") and raised a chuckle. "Cold Christmas", it said. "How true", I used think, as another rivulet of freezing rain water found its way down the back of my neck, my numb fingers and toes already struggling to coordinate braking and gear changing, and with thirty more miles to cover before home.

Fast forward ten years and the most arduous commuting I do now is to wander into the kitchen to put the kettle on. I save a lot of money on petrol, but I miss that twice daily fix of riding my bike. In spring, summer and autumn I have an endless stock of excuses to wheel a bike out of the shed and go for a ride; the post office, the bank, that printer cartridge is looking a bit empty, those tyres need scrubbing-in, and so on. But in winter, I need a bit of a shove.

Quick! The headlight's working! Someone take a picture...

"Haul out your favourite old bike and go for a Christmas Ride" said Rowena. No problem if you live in sub-tropical Cornwall, but a challenge when the fenland temperature barely rises above freezing between Christmas Eve and Bank Holiday Tuesday; no white Christmas for us, but certainly a cold Christmas.

Cold Christmas. Cold Christmas? Cold Christmas! Synapses dulled by over-eating finally make the connection and a plan is formed; at the first sign of a thaw I'll point the Morini down the A10, admire the stark winter landscapes, find and photograph the place that the Cold Christmas sign points to, and then treat myself to an all-day breakfast at the Silver Ball café on the way home. Time to dig out the maps and the thermals.

Maps first, and there's a problem. I can't find a village off the A10 called Cold Christmas. Was the sign an illusion caused by imminent frostbite? Is my memory playing tricks with me? Am I confusing an old commuting route with some other bitter winter journey? Progressively older and larger scale maps are pulled off shelves, and my search extends further up and down the A10. No luck. My last resort (which, given my occupation, should perhaps have been my first resort) is the internet, and Type in "cold christmas", select "GB Place", click search, and instead of the list of close misspellings that I was expecting, I get a map of Hertfordshire and an orange arrow pointing to… well, nothing. Very strange. A bit of zooming in and out, and I eventually end up on the 1" to the mile OS map which shows the hamlet of Cold Christmas. Success, although "hamlet" is an exaggeration for what appears to be four buildings, a tee-junction and a phone box.

And the thermals? Well, a couple of days after the Christmas freeze the weather changed, rustling up one of those bright, sunny and strangely warm winter days that make our climate so conversation-worthy. Turned out nice again. The warm weather hasn't made it into the shed, however, and the Morini needs both the flip-up fuel-enricheners before it will fire up. For some reason, fumbling around under the tank feels so much more satisfying, so much more direct, than adjusting a handlebar mounted choke lever and once the bike is warmed enough to respond to the throttles I'm on my way.

Bank-holiday-empty suburban side-streets give way to manic main roads, made worse by bargain-hunting shoppers who seem to have forgotten, in three short days, how to drive. I take temporary refuge from the madness in a petrol station before, now fully fuelled, throwing myself back into the melee. Through Cambridge and heading for Royston, the traffic finally thins, and I'm able to ride the Morini at its own pace. It usually demands to be thrashed without mercy but today either the bike or the rider seem happy at a slightly more mellow pace.

Thrumming along the old Icknield Way within sight of the legal limit gives me a chance to appreciate the sharp and low winter sunlight and the way it warms up the colours of everything it illuminates. My arty-farty reverie lasts until I turn onto another Roman road, and that low sun turns on me. Ermine Street runs due south (unless you're going the other way, when it conveniently runs due north) and the sun is now not only shining straight in my eyes but also reflecting painfully off the mirror-shiny wet road. I can see… nothing. My speed drops from mellow to maudlin, and I tuck in behind a car which shields at least some of the glare. Whose idea was this?

The joys of winter sun.

The problem with Roman roads is that they're just so… straight. The next 10 miles etch themselves into my retina. I can't see to overtake, I can't see the road markings, signs are silhouetted and unreadable, enjoyment has become endurance. Finally, past the Buntingford roundabout, the road changes direction, my sight is restored, my mood lifts. And there are roundabouts. Roundabouts are great. They give you a chance to run through the full range of Things I Like About Motorbikes; brake hard and down through the gears on the approach, lean to the left then to the right and hold a long sweeping lean angle, then flick back over to the right and accelerate hard on the way out. Brilliant.

I'm having so much fun by the time I reach Puckeridge that I almost don't notice that they've added another junction to what used to be the A10/A120 roundabout. Bypass Now has now been bypassed with a shiny new dual carriageway A10 and the old road has been re-classified and re-numbered. It takes me another lap of the roundabout to make sure that I'm choosing the correct exit, but as soon as the sun hits me between the eyes I know I'm heading in the right direction.

It's a good job that the by-pass has taken most of the traffic off the old A10, because that combination of low sun and reflected glare is making it very difficult to spot the Cold Christmas sign. Rolling down into Wadesmill I drop my speed, knowing that if I end up back on the A10 it'll mean a long loop round to start again.

Easing back up the hill, with the dual carriageway A10 almost in sight, a battered and grubby sign on the wrong side of the road catches my eye. "Cold Christmas" is what it says, and down the almost hidden Cold Christmas Lane is where it points.

Away from the main road, the lane soon shrinks to the width of badly driven 4x4, and approaching every blind bend my fingers twitch on the brake lever in anticipation of encountering someone who knows the road so well that they don't need to keep watch for small Italian motorcycles in their path.

After a couple of miles there's a bridge across the new bypass, and then the trees overhead close in to form a tunnel. If I was travelling by stagecoach, this is the point where the horses would shy and the driver would refuse to go any further; "Cold Christmas? I'll take 'ee to the bridge ower yon bypass, but after that you'm on your own…"

Moto Morini Stuff on

And this was the busy side of the street...With the sunlight barely penetrating the trees, there's frost on the sides of the lane and a mulch of mud and leaves runs down its centre; if I wanted to turn back I couldn't.

And then suddenly I'm out of the trees and there's my sign. It marks the overgrown driveway of a hidden property, and there's another building just in view. No wonder it wasn't marked on the maps. I park up, take my photos, then use the driveway to three-point-turn my way back towards civilisation. Although it's warm in the sun, the chill of the shadows reminds me that I'd promised myself an all-day breakfast on the way home.

So it's time to be off, and with the sun behind me the dazzled grind south becomes a glorious romp northwards. I let the engine breath, let the revs climb, start to work the gearbox, and begin picking off slower traffic. Nothing is going to get in between me and my bacon, egg, sausage, beans, tomatoes, mush-rooms, fried slice and mug of coffee.

Mission accomplished, and now I'm proper hungry…

Full English?


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