Cycling · Performing Arts · Travel

Week 42: BBC Proms Weekend 1

Having submitted my first year report last week, this week was to be taken rather easily. I didn’t actually get much physics done at all. Instead, my focus was firmly fixed on the trip that I would be embarking on at the end of the week. The Tour de France was on, and I would be trekking to the Alps to see it. That meant that, over the course of the week, I needed to get some riding in.

The first ride on Monday didn’t quite go to plan; I loaded the wrong data file on my bike computer, and went off in the wrong direction, having to loop back around and come back to Cambridge. My ride on Thursday was much better, heading out into Hertfordshire and some of the short, narrow climbs near Hitchin, finishing at Knebworth.

I also took the week to catch up on some odd jobs that had been left undone since I was busy with my first year report. Notably, this included getting a new phone, my old one had died after I fell into the river and I hadn’t gotten around to replacing it yet. However, with my trip looming, it was something that I needed to do. I also played a fair bit of Real Tennis, culminating in a Champagne League match that I lost badly on Friday morning.

But the most exciting part of the week was by far the weekend. Back in May, Jacqueline and I had booked a couple of weekend passes to the BBC Proms. The Proms are a series of 75 classical music concerts held every night at the Royal Albert Hall in London from July through to September. Every concert is different, and it is notable by the fact that the centre of the Hall is standing room only, and the more expensive tickets get seats around the hall. The standing room tickets are relatively cheap, even for popular concerts, though you have to line up to get the tickets on the night. However, you can skip the line with a weekend or season pass to get guaranteed entry. We therefore planned to stay in London for the entire first weekend of the Proms, and go to each of the first 4 concerts.

As I would be heading for France directly from London, I needed to get my bike and my travelling belongings down to London from Cambridge. I took the opportunity to get a big ride in, and so decided to ride in; Jacqueline kindly carrying my bag on the train. It was a long ride at 110 km, and I needed to get the timings right so that we could get to the first show. The ride started well, heading down the somewhat busy roads from Cambridge into Essex, and up the narrow climb at Littlebury. From there, I was following country lanes through rural Essex and Hertfordshire, surrounded on every side by rolling hills of wheat nearing its harvest.

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About a third of the way into the ride, I arrived at an intersection, where the path that looked rideable on a map really wasn’t. I tried to go a little way in, though the road deteriorated quickly. The surface was either muddy and slippery or filled with sharp rocks. I dodged and weaved and struggled to stay on my bike. Eventually, I realised that the road was following a dry creek bed, only it wasn’t completely dry and there were sections of water covering the entire road. Not wanting to get stuck, I rode briefly through the fields on the side of the road, trying to find a place where it was safe to restart. Eventually, I gave up, and had to ride back through the fields to the troublesome intersection. It took even more minutes to clear all of the mud out from my wheels and gears. Soon enough, I was on my way again, but I had lost a good half hour in the creek.

I rode hard onwards, though it was rather warm and I was lacking water. As I approached London, the roads got busier and busier. I rode a short climb near Epping Forest inside the M25, but then was on suburban roads all the way into Stratford. From there, it was the stop and start of traffic lights through the Thursday afternoon rush all the way into Liverpool Street Station, where I met Jacqueline. She gave me the heavy bag and collected a hire bike, and we rode out along the Embankment.

I was tired and sweaty by the time we reached our accommodation in West London. Jacqueline knows some family friends with a flat who were out of town, and kindly let us stay for the weekend. I showered and changed, legs still burning, and we went out to the Royal Albert Hall for the First Night of the Proms.

We arrived at the hall, not really knowing what was going on. The queuing system is rather odd, and in retrospect we may have jumped the queue a little, but we didn’t notice we had done so. After the obligatory security checks, we made our way out into the Royal Albert Hall itself. It was done up just how I had seen it on videos from the Proms, and it was surreal to stand in the middle of it all: the stage and Sir Henry Wood’s bust in front of us, the Royal Box behind us, seating all around and the giant, blue, mushroom-like objects hanging from the ceiling. We found some standing room near the centre of the arena to the right hand side, and watched and listened to the first performance. It began with a BBC commissioned piece, that like a lot of commissioned works seemed not to go anywhere, but some people seem to like it.

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The main attraction of the first night was Igor Levit’s performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3. It was fascinating to watch and hear; he played for much of the performance with his face very close to his hands, but he was very skilled and it really showed. The entire piece was incredible to listen to, combined with the fact I was still overwhelmed by my surroundings. As an encore, he played a piano version of the final movement of Beethoven’s ninth symphony, otherwise known as Ode to Joy. Combined with his EU-flag pin, this made for a very political statement given the circumstances (Ode to Joy is the official anthem of the EU)

After a short interval, the final piece was John Adam’s Harmonium, which is a mass choral work with orchestra. At the Royal Albert Hall, the choir stands in the seating above the orchestra, and there were approximately 400 of them, so the atmosphere really carried through the arena. The piece alternated between moments of epicness and moments of atmospheric chill. Overall, the bar was set very high for the Proms to come.

We went out for dinner afterwards at a pizza restaurant in South Kensington, near the Royal Albert Hall. Owing to my earlier mishaps, we hadn’t had a chance to eat properly before the show. By the end, I was tired from both my ride, standing in the arena, and from the late hour, and we both went to sleep very easily.

The next morning, I left with my bike on another ride, this time down to Surrey where I knew there were a lot of good hills to climb. I first rode to Clapham Junction to catch a train part of the way. Unfortunately, many of the usual services were cancelled or delayed, owing to the Southern drivers refusing to work any overtime. I ended up having to change at Woking to get to the start in Guildford.

When I got off the train, I looked at my rear tyre. The off-road riding yesterday had really taken a toll, on the back tyre especially. I had no confidence I could ride without causing a catastrophic puncture, so I went down the road to a nearby bike shop. The mechanics were very friendly, and changed over my tyre to a new set. I also got myself some new cleats for my shoes, the old ones being very worn out. I was now ready to set off.

My route took me over 6 climbs in northern Surrey. The first, Newland’s Corner, was wide and shallow, something to get over rather than something to explore. When I did get to the top, however, I was rewarded with a beautiful view over the vast English countryside. The descent into Shere was rapid, and soon I was climbing again, this time up Hounds House Road. This climb was interesting. In the steepest bits, the road was dug into a narrow cutting, such that the dirt on the side of the road towered steeply above one’s head. It felt as though I was riding up a narrow gorge or canyon. It was also forested, with a beautiful, tall canopy covering protecting me from the sun. At the start of the climb, I had been passed by another cyclist with a better bike, but I slowly caught up to him and rode over the top with him, which required pedalling a lot harder than I normally would on such a climb.

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I stopped at the bottom of the descent to adjust my brakes a little; it had been so long since I really needed them. The third climb was Leith Hill, a hard, steep climb used in most of the cycling events that come through Surrey. I climbed alongside another two female cyclists out for a ride together; it seemed as though Surrey was the place that everybody came to for their cycling-based recreation. The descent through the forest was long, but it brought me to the fourth climb: White Downs Lane. At the bottom is a sign indicating gradients of up to 18%, and though short, it is very tough. I was panting heavily by the top, though I was rewarded by a easy ride along the ridge line.

The fifth hill was probably the most anticipated of the day: Box Hill. When the Olympics were in London in 2012, the cycling road race course started in Stratford and rode out to Surrey to do lap after lap of this hill, before heading back to The Mall. I only did it once, however. Compared to the previous two hills, it wasn’t all that steep, but it did have two sharp switchbacks that made it feel somewhat alpine. On the descent, I was stopped at a railway crossing to see a steam train rush past on the main line. It was a British Pullman train, a luxury train with luxury coaches to go with it.

The final climb was in the suburbs of Reigate, a short climb on a busy road that wasn’t anything too special. I finished my ride at Redhill, just north of Gatwick Airport. I collected some snacks from the station and took the train back into Clapham Junction, for a final short ride back to the flat to meet Jacqueline.

As the previous night, my delays en route meant that there wasn’t enough time to grab a proper dinner before the show, so we went straight to the Royal Albert Hall for Prom 2 instead. The queueing made a little more sense this time; we were handed a number and directed into the season ticket holders queue, but it was fast-moving and we were inside without too much trouble. The highlight of this performance was the first half, where Lisa Batiashvili performed Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D minor with the Staatskapelle Berlin. She was phenomenally skilled, and really took to the challenge that was the piece. Her fingering was rapid, and her bow moved with great finesse; her shoulder-length hair messing itself up as she neared the end of a solo section.

The second half was Elgar’s First Symphony, to which both Jacqueline and I found very tedious, predictable and boring, but the British audience seemed to enjoy it greatly, probably giving it far more applause than it deserved. We left before the applause had ended, and rode hire bikes into the West End in search for dinner. Jacqueline had been given a recommendation from a friend for a particular steakhouse near Piccadilly Circus, but by the time we arrived, the place was full. Being a modern place, there was an attendant with an ipad at the door who booked us in for an hour’s time. We spent the hour down on the Embankment, until we got a text message asking us to come back up to the restaurant (navigating Trafalgar square in both directions). Our steak came quickly and was wonderfully juicy, and at a very competitive price as well. Our night over, we rode back to the flat in West London.

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Sunday morning began with some basic chores: trying to find an open bike shop which would give my bike a quick look over before I headed to the Alps. We found one in Wandsworth, and the mechanic there adjusted my brakes slightly but otherwise said my bike was in good nick. We had brunch at a French café near to the Royal Albert Hall, and I picked up some new shoes from Kensington High Street, my old ones falling to pieces. After a quick sit-down in Hyde Park, we were back at the Royal Albert Hall for Prom 3, an afternoon Prom. This time, we arrived earlier, and the lines were longer. To get in, we needed to queue to see a guy who gave us a ticket to join the queue to get in. We eventually did get inside though, and stood to the left-centre of the stage.

Prom 3 featured the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. The first half was two Mozart pieces: his Symphony No. 38 and his Violin Concerto No. 3, performed by Isabelle Faust. To me, Mozart’s pieces display a sharp technical beauty, and must be performed very precisely, but often lack the emotional drive of the later Romantic-era pieces. After the interval, it was time for Schumann’s second symphony, which, while performed well, didn’t strike me as absolutely amazing.

We only had about an hour before we had to be back for Prom 4, so we went down to South Kensington and found a burger restaurant for dinner, the first pre-Prom dinner of the weekend. Before long, we were back in the hall, in largely the same place again, for another performance by the Staatskapelle Berlin. The first half was a commissioned piece, called Deep Time. It sounded like somebody was playing around with a synthesiser, and then tried to put it the result to an orchestra. It was notable by its use of four gongs and four xylophones/marimba-type instruments. However, to my mind there were sections which were harmoniously dubious.

The second half was another Elgar Symphony, this time number 2. While not as boring a composition as that in Prom 2, it still to my mind wasn’t the greatest symphony in the world. But the British audience seemed to think otherwise. The orchestra performed Elgar’s Nimrod from the Enigma Variations as an encore. This was very special, as Nimrod is a song often performed at the famous Last Night of the Proms, and I got to hear it whilst standing in the middle of the Royal Albert Hall at the Proms. More applause ensued, and then the Conductor broke from classical music tradition and gave a somewhat long-winded speech to the audience. Now, the Proms are supposed to be apolitical, and he tried to say that his speech wasn’t political, but it definitely was. He went on a bit of a rant about right-wing extremism (meticulously trying to avoid the word Brexit but everyone seemed to know that’s what he meant), and trying to promote the idea of a shared culture of Europe, spread through education. Finally, he gave another encore of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March, aka Land of Hope and Glory. At the Proms. In the Royal Albert Hall. For those unaware, Land of Hope and Glory is probably the song most famously linked to the Last Night of the Proms, and it was amazing to hear it there, if not at the Last Night itself. Unfortunately, the audience didn’t sing or bob, nor was there any flag-waving, so it wasn’t a true Last Night experience.

Buzzing, Jacqueline and I left the Royal Albert Hall by bike to head back to the flat. We would have one more night in London, before I would head to Paris and on to the Alps.

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