As a two-or-three-times-a-week kind of cyclist, it’s fair to say that I know my way around the back lanes of coastal Lancashire pretty well; in fact, were you to blindfold me and deposit me, with bike, in some far flung spot of this great county I’d be pretty confident I could figure out from the lay of the land where I was (with reasonable accuracy).
To be clear, I’m not advocating that people blindfold cyclists – me or anyone else – and whisk them away to sinister and remote locations for the purpose of some dark sport. That would be weird, scary, and technically kidnap.
I’m just illustrating a point.
Many of these back roads I only pass through at certain times of the year. Now winter is here, for example, I largely avoid the big hills due to an instinctive dislike of freezing rain, high Siberian winds and treacherous and slippery descents, and I head out for the kind of long flat(ish) rides which take me to parts I wouldn’t normally see during the warmer months of the year.
Which brings me, as a man who appreciates an unusual or poetic place name, to perhaps the greatest place name in the whole of Lancashire, if not the UK (and I’m open to suggestions on that).
The place that was the subject of a crisp and sunny Sunday morning ride recently is the little known hamlet which goes by the name of “Scronkey”.
It’s a beauty isn’t it?
Conjuring up images of, well…scruffy donkey’s I suppose (no…just me?)
It’s no teeming metropolis, but then no teeming metropolis would ever be granted the glorious name of Scronkey. The most recent population count in 2011 even felt the need to group it with its near neighbour Eagland Hill to boost the numbers slightly, and yet the two places together boasted a head count of less than 300 souls.
As a place it seems to consist of nothing more than three or four squiggles in the road lined by a handful of beautiful (and occasionally thatched roofed) houses, and surrounded either end by long miles of nothingness and Belgian farmland.
“Eh?” I hear you say, “…Belgian?!”
Let me explain.
One of my regular riding friends and I have a bit of a fascination for Belgian cyclists, and Belgian roads; in fact, if anything involves both Belgium and cycling we’re happy. This is based on some romantic (and quite possibly, hopelessly naive) idea of the culture of Belgian cycling which involves enigmatic, men-of-few-words hard-man cyclists – strong men who would rather ride a bike through the mud, the mist, and the drizzle of northern Europe than the sun-kissed mountain cols of the south of France, if for no other reason than the harsh weather will weed out the weaklings and allow the proper bike racers to go at it.
Along with this, our mental image of cycling in Belgium involves a lot of flat farmland bisected by single track roads, where protection from the elements is minimal, and any approaching traffic involves a nerve janglingly close pass, lest one of you should end up in the drainage ditch which hugs the tarmac (by one of you, I mean the cyclist, of course).
Standard practice is to dip your elbow away from the wing mirror at the last minute: that’s how close!
Either side of Scronkey, (and actually, criss-crossing various other parts of coastal Lancashire) you’ll find this classic landscape, and one of us will always, without fail, and with a satisfied half-grin, say to the other: “just like Belgium this.”
We’re not entirely serious, of course, but even the tiniest suggestion that we may be following in the tyre tracks of those weather-beaten tough guys that we so admire is enough to maintain the charade.
Having never been to Belgium, our image of the country as a vast featureless farm-scape is stolen from black and white photos of De Vlaeminck and Merckx, and may or may not be based on reality. No doubt there will be a few readers out there who can put me right on one or two facts of Belgian cycling life (Chikashi Miyamoto…i’m looking at you).
Either way, to English ears the Flemish language can often sound pretty eccentric; they might even have some rural out-of-the-way place names as evocative and interesting as Scronkey?