An evening at the library

The majestic Signet Library in Edinburgh was the perfect place to finish The Cycling Podcast’s Grand Tour of (parts of) Britain. It wasn’t until Richard mentioned it that I realised it was the success of our event there back in December 2016 that had given us the confidence to attempt a tour like this.

When we were first invited by Vincent Guérin of the WS Society we were unsure there’d be enough demand to fill the room but he had been confident, he worked hard to promote the event and it was a great evening.

Returning lived up to expectations. The building itself is stunning. Beautiful and grand but warm and welcoming too, which is a tricky balancing act for buildings to strike, although it has to be said buildings aren’t conscious of such things, they just stand there.

  Photograph by Orla Chennaoui

Photograph by Orla Chennaoui

As we sat in one of the rooms overlooked by paintings of 18th and 19th century legal eagles in their wigs and shelves groaning with old law books, we were told the room was haunted. I don’t believe in ghosts but I did notice that of the dozen or so chairs at the long table, all but one of them was tucked in neatly. The other was at a jaunty angle, as if a ghostly occupant had left in a hurry when it heard us coming. Or perhaps that was the joke.

Minutes before we went on, Richard spilled water on his jeans – the result of an over-enthusiastic tap and a small hand basin. We all chortled a bit, not appreciating Richard’s anxiety.

‘Does it look bad?’ he said.

‘No, it doesn’t look too bad,’ I said.

‘Are you sure it doesn’t look like I’ve wet myself?’ he said.

‘Oh no,’ I said, ‘It definitely looks like you’ve wet yourself.’

Orla came to the rescue by suggesting Richard call his brother, who was in the audience, and swap jeans. Problem solved.

  Photograph by Albie Clark

Photograph by Albie Clark

The event went well. A photographer called Albie Clark took some great photos that really captured the atmosphere, even if I look like Dr Bunsen Honeydew from The Muppets in almost all of them. You’ll have to Google that reference, I’m not doing the work for you.

At some point, I told the story of when I played golf with two-time Tour de France winner Laurent Fignon at Hampton Court Palace. Fignon had agreed to be interviewed by Edward Pickering, who edited the magazine I wrote for at the time, only on the condition that he could play golf at a decent  course. A four-ball was hastily assembled and I found myself walking up the fairway behind one of my childhood sporting heroes.

He was not in the most talkative mood – he took his golf too seriously and perhaps was a bit grumpy to be in the company of some hacker who was on course to shoot about 105 after the first two holes. (Me, if that's not clear). I nearly took his head off midway down the first fairway when I shanked an iron shot that flew off at close to right-angles in his direction. He ducked just in time and shot me a well-practiced look of contempt.

But I had some reasonable moments. On the front nine there was a par five and I stuck it on the green in three and then bagged a putt from about 20 feet to make birdie. Fignon, who had been swearing and thumping his sand wedge into the turf on the previous hole after taking three to get out of a bunker, skidded his approach shot through the green and into the trees. I don’t think he appreciated me enjoying my birdie as much as I did.

On the back nine there was another par five and I had such a nightmare I picked up with about 150 yards still to go to the green. Fignon, who was finishing strongly, rolled his eagle putt up to the lip of the hole and tapped in for a birdie. He came hopping over to the edge of the green, where I was standing, arms folded, watching the others putt out. ’No birdie for you zis time, eh?’ he said, smiling broadly. It was just about the only English he spoke all day.

After the event, we signed some books and someone presented me with a bottle of Kwaremont beer – named after the Oude Kwaremont climb that features in so many of the Flandrian classics – which was incredibly thoughtful and much appreciated.

Afterwards we headed to a restaurant Vincent had booked. When I’d arrived earlier in the evening he said, ‘We will be going for some cheese, ham and wine afterwards. I hope that is okay?’ I must admit I feared cheese and ham might not be substantial enough but my worries were unfounded. If you’re ever in Edinburgh and have a chance to go to L’Escargot Blanc in Queensferry Street, do because it was really good.

We ate downstairs in the bar and the food was simple buffet-style stuff but it was done so well. There was a fabulous selection of cheeses, ham, saucisson; a jar of crunchy, vinegary cornichons; some raclette with boiled potatoes; some pâte en croute and a really good black pudding pie; plus some tinned sardines and other gems. The food hadn’t been prepared so much as curated and it was a real joy. My concern that I was stuck at the end of the table a fair distance from some of the delights was eased by the fact Vincent and François were reassuringly assertive in making sure everything got passed round.

François revealed that it would be his birthday the following day but implored us not to sing Happy Birthday on the basis that it would be bad luck. So we waited until the clock passed midnight and gave him a stirring rendition – although it was nothing compared to his Flower of Scotland on stage at the Signet Library a few hours earlier.

Orla headed off a bit before us as she had to be up at silly o’clock to fly back to London. Richard went to stay at his brother’s place. François, David Luxton (our literary agent) and I took a taxi back to our hotel and as we said our goodbyes in the corridor I suddenly felt sad that it was over.

All being well, though, we will go back on the road at the end of the year, and we hope to make it to some of the places we were unable to reach this time.

  Photograph by Albie Clark

Photograph by Albie Clark