All roads lead to Rome, so the saying goes, and Kenneth Wilson is heading there now. On his bicycle, with a cello strapped onto the back of it.
Kenneth, known as the poetical cellist, erstwhile Anglican vicar, set off at the end of May from Carlisle on his rather wonderful 2000-mile odyssey, Highway Cello, “to celebrate the Roman Empire”. The plan is to play his cello whenever he stops cycling, scheduled and pop-up concerts, sometimes busking, “just responding to the moment”.
It’s clear that Kenneth is a man close to the heart of all we believe in at Mag North, so we’ve been tracking his progress along the way. We first caught up with him when he was playing on a punt on the river in Cambridge and then, the day before he was due to sail across the channel, at the Buttermarket in Canterbury. “And I’m playing at a service in the cathedral this afternoon,” he told us.
He’s riding a classic adventure touring bike, a 50-year old Dawes Galaxy which he’s had from new; his cello, called Libre, travels behind him on a makeshift rack, after a disaster with a trailer on a test-ride to the supermarket.
"On the way home the trailer fishtailed like an ancient caravan on the motorway, and I fell off. And hurt myself. So the trailer was abandoned. Plan B. I bought some square section aluminium tube, and fabricated a rack to fit on the back of the bike, so the cello can be strapped to the bike itself. It looks like something out of a Heath Robinson nightmare." This was one of many lessons Kenneth learned during his preparations near his home (in a tree-house) at Renwick, not far from Hadrian’s Wall. (The Roman connection is becoming apparent.) “It seemed to me that the cello was the important factor. I needed to get my music and my performance ready. But I misjudged. The bike is way more important. If I play a few wrong notes, it’s not the end of the world, is it? But if I can’t cycle 50 miles a day (70 miles on the first day, due to a bit of mismanagement) then there won’t be any notes at all, will there? At least, not in the right place. By which, obviously, I mean not in the right geographical location…”
For training, Kenneth did a long ride up and down Hartside Pass in the North Pennines. Six times. “Six times 1300 feet, and then a bit extra, to make it up to 8000 feet. Twice more and I would have done the equivalent of sea level to the highest point I’m going over the Alps. I nearly tried, but I knew I wouldn’t make it."
At this point it seems appropriate to ask, why? Why cycle from the one-time edge of the Roman Empire to its heart? “It just seemed like a good idea. One of those ideas that won’t go away, and the more you talk about it with other people, the more it seemed to make sense. And the cello? Kenneth enjoys the spontaneous interaction between performer and audience with his poetry and cello, playing both indoors as well as outdoor pop-up performances. “Most cellists don’t play outside. They say the sound disappears on the wind. But I think there’s a special quality to it. The landscape and the elements add something."
He’s been playing the cello since the age of ten, having music lessons but no professional training. He trained as an Anglican vicar, served a curacy in Walthamstow in East London, and then moved to Wolverhampton. Somewhere along the way there was a different kind of epiphany, and Kenneth subsequently ran a travel company offering spiritual-interest group journeys in India, Nepal and Tibet, as well as working as an author and property developer. Rome is clearly magnetic. We have other friends cycling there at the moment. Paul Sinton-Hewitt, the founder of parkrun, and his wife Joanne, were – at the time of writing this – somewhere south east of Chalon in France, heading towards the Jura mountains and Geneva. They’re on a somewhat more conventional journey called Dome to Dome, an organised bike ride from St Paul’s (London) to St Peter’s (Rome) which will take them 19 days. Without cellos, or indeed any other musical instruments. (Their playlist, this day, Paul tells me, is the somewhat appropriate Chain Gang.)
But for Kenneth, Highway Cello is about the bike AND the music. Heading south, after Masham Town Hall, Harrogate, and a pop-up performance outside York Minster, he headed for Gainsborough in Lincolnshire where he and the bike and the cello were welcomed into All Saints Church.
“I was brought up not to wear a hat in church, so wheeling a bicycle across the beautifully tiled floor of All Saints Gainsborough felt like a step too far. But it’s part of the show – the audience have to see how we got here."
It was, said Kenneth, a beautiful place to play. “The curved wall at the east end made a perfect amplifying amphitheatre, and Libre’s voice filled the big space. And Gainsborough supplied an audience that
laughed and cried in all the right places. A recently arrived refugee from Ukraine thanked me profusely and tearfully for the Meditation by Frank Bridge, and the accompanying poem, dedicated to Ukraine."
Kenneth will be heading through France and Italy, aiming to be in Rome on July 5, carrying a letter of greeting for the Mayor of the Eternal City from the Mayor of Carlisle. Some of his overnight accommodation is booked, other times he is hoping that kind people who like his music will offer a bed for the night.
Here at Mag North we promise to keep you updated with his progress. For now, we leave you with Kenneth’s own verse about his crazy adventure:
Here's a dare then, get you home
Then strap that cello to a bike,
Pedal South, go down to Rome - Be careful where you aim the spike.
Play it every day en route,
On streets, in squares, in parks, on roofs,
Posh restaurants where the food's en croute,
Low dives where no-one gives a F -hoot,
If you dare!