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Coffee, cake and camaraderie is always on offer at Rutland columnist Allan Grey's Last of the Summer Wine groups

What a privilege it is to belong to not one, but two, ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ groups, writes Rutland columnist Allan Grey.

One is an exclusively male group with a fixed membership, the other mostly male but with ladies always welcome, however, the one thing each have in common is coffee, cake, cobs and camaraderie.

The former group is static, meets every Monday morning, and over the last year this has mainly been outside, putting the world to rights in the grounds of the beautiful Oakham Castle, more recently since The Lord Nelson reopened its doors, noisily outside in the corner of Oakham Market Square, amusing the occasional tourist.

Allan Grey at Bradgate Park with a defibrillator
Allan Grey at Bradgate Park with a defibrillator

The latter group prefers lycra, annoying motorists, not intentionally you understand, and seeking their coffee, cake and cobs further afield than Oakham.

The first group has absolutely no defined leadershp, and often has difficulty in making simple decisions, such as where to purchase that coffee and cake, and recently, where to consume, given a weather forecast of impending Arctic doom? Taking into account the average age of the group, three score and ten plus a little bit, it can take many messages via our WhatsApp group to reach a conclusion, social media warriors we are not.

During our weekly gathering many topics will be covered, each receiving critical analysis. Last week for instance included bats, the virus laden, protected, flying species, as opposed to those wielded by the Bothams and Laras of yesteryear cricketing fame, and what to do when you find one in your garden, pooping down your windows, seeking refuge from a mutation of chasing epidemiologists. We also gave much consideration to which online dating app provides which kind of relationship potential for a Summer Wine suitor, where can one play their home made electronic organ in public without upsetting the horses, how to avoid being paired with that grumpy doombrain again for the pairs golf day tomorrow, how to get a CDM1 appointment at your local surgery, but most importantly, just how far away is the abyss, and how fast is it heading in our direction. All of these topics provide fertile ground for light hearted ‘banter’.

It’s difficult to distil the glue that has held this group of seven together over many years, but a shared world view gives us the ability to ‘banter’ about any of the above, and many more subjects besides; the ability to laugh at ourselves, without serious insult, or rudeness, is certainly the key to our longevity. We are never going to solve any of the world’s intractable problems, but we share involvement in a wide range of voluntary activities, from CAB, Lions, Prison Monitoring Board, to Agricultural Society, cancer groups, vaccination volunteers and village hall committees, our time freely given, all of which makes for the ease with which we can banter without fear of being cancelled for a momentary micro-aggression, or an ‘incorrect lived experience’.

Gossip is usually defined as casual conversation about other people, typically involving all manner of juicy tittle-tattle, and generally not confirmed as being true. But banter is the art of word play, non-serious conversation between friends, the offering of uninvited opinion, exaggeration, irony, sarcasm, and other comic themes to gently humiliate, make fun of, and generally laugh at ourselves. It only works in groups that are comfortable in one another’s company, and it’s a rare Monday we come away without feeling refreshed and rejuvenated, ready for a tough week ahead. As the old saying goes: “There’s only one thing worse than being talked about, and that’s not being talked about.”

The glue that holds the second group together is the fairly obvious love of cycling, sharing a similar average age to the first group. It has a little more by way of leadership, albeit shared, without which we would never decide the where and when of the next ‘ride out’. Communication is regular and ongoing, needing to consider weather forecasts, personnel availability, route details, start location and most importantly, where we will stop for coffee and cake. Most are a little more tech savvy than the first group, needing to upload ‘Ride with GPS’ route information files to their personal satellite navigation systems shared via our Messenger app group.

By definition we are not a static group, have a total membership of 18, with attendance usually comprising seven or eight riders for any given weekday outing. With a range of ability, managing social distancing whilst riding has not been too difficult, in fact keeping the group within half a mile of one another on a ‘no-drop’ social ride can be a challenge over 50 miles, and 3,000 feet of climbing.

Banter might be whilst riding two abreast, which contrary to the opinion of most motorists, the Highway Code encourages on narrow lanes to discourage dangerous overtaking, yeah, right! Fascinating topics such as the problem with my bottom bracket, how long Jack at Windmill Cycles has taken to fit my new wheels, and the case for tubeless tyres, or Di2 wifi gears, or will there be a defibrillator en route, are debated at length, along with, could have done with another layer today. Of course, there’s also how far is it to our cafe stop, we must be nearly there by now.

Alternatively banter might be whilst we stop for sustenance at one of the many superb cafes, farm parks and field kitchens servicing the ‘two wheelers’ across our local environs. Millionaire shortbread, chocolate tiffin, bacon cobs, sausage sandwiches with lashing of brown sauce, and plenty of coffee are all a staple diet, necessary to refuel and get us back to base without succombing to malnutrition. The world view of this group is somewhat wider, and as such although there is still plenty of conversation, there is less banter, less making fun of ourselves, we’re a little more serious, however the sharing of friendship is equally strong; it’s a rare ride we come away from without feeling fulfilled, and having maintained a great camaraderie.

At any time friendships are vital, but during the challenging times of the pandemic and lockdown, even more so, and at any age they remain a great source of resilience and comfort to us all.

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