Tony Jordan: 26 Dec 1930-4 Dec 2020

Here’s the speech that I made at my Dad’s funeral, in January 2021.

It falls to me to sketch Dad’s long and happy life; to his last days he would never fail to remark on what a good life he had had, and if he should “pop his clogs”, it would be without the least hint of regret.

It must have been a hard childhood though. Born into the harsh depression of the 1930s, his mother later remarked that she had to forgo food herself to put it on the table for Eileen, Ron, Doreen and Tony. The horrific blitz of November 1940 left close neighbours dead, and gave us the startling image of nine year old Tony walking through the smouldering ruins of Coventry Cathedral the next morning. At age 11 his beloved older brother Ron was killed when his ship was torpedoed in the North Atlantic. And at 14 his father died suddenly, leaving Dad as ‘the man of the house’.

But with great hardship came silver linings. Evacuated to the Wyre Forest he deepened his love of nature, studying butterflies and birds in an environment that must have been joyous to a kid from the back-to-backs of Coventry, despite the loneliness of separation from Mum and Dad.

Like the most fortunate of his generation, education offered a route out of poverty, and Dad grabbed it eagerly, winning a prized place at Coventry Tech, and later Birmingham University. As a student, he didn’t respect any boundaries between Science, Arts and Humanities. He followed curiosity wherever it would lead. I suspect he must have been a frustrating student to teach, being not the least bit respectful of seniority or reputation!

In similar vein, he regarded his two years National Service in the RAF, as a pointless exercise in authoritarianism, mitigated only by discovering traditional Jazz, lighting up the barracks with the sound of King Oliver on scratchy 78s.

We often forget his physical achievements as a young man. His success as a runner, through studying, and emulating, the revolutionary training methods of the great Emil Zatopek. A 100-mile-a-day bike tour around England on a fixed-wheel bike! Many mountaineering and rock-climbing trips, especially in Snowdonia.

We should also remember his times travelling and working in Franco’s Spain in the early 1950s. A country at that time more remote and challenging than, say, India might be today. When other memories deserted him, Dad frequently recalled the warm welcome and friendship he received from the community in Pamplona.

Of course the greatest gift of his Birmingham years was finding love and marriage. Mum said she married Dad because he was different from the rest! Which I’m sure was an understatement and made for a challenging relationship with her family, but he loved her for 63 years with complete devotion and loyalty. As they made a home together, he sought a career that would make use of his talents and accommodate his need for autonomy, and after some years found his niche leading a team of remedial reading teachers, which suited him down to the ground.

Eventually, children arrived! I remember, long, long ago, asking Dad when was the happiest time of his life, and he replied with certainty that it was his thirties; with family and career resolved, he felt able to relax and flourish. Perhaps later years, in retirement, equalled that happy period, I don’t know.

Throughout his life he revelled in pursuing an amazingly wide variety of interests, deep-diving until he mastered the very essence of the subject. Whether it was wine-making or self-sufficiency, investing or football pools, family treeing or military history, philosophy or photography. On all these subjects and more, he devoured thousands of books, from library or charity shop, until he’d marshalled the facts and absorbed the theories, and formulated a few theories of his own in that big brain. I must have passed on plenty of those theories, because the phrase: “Rob’s Dad says…” was one I repeatedly heard from friends and colleagues… usually followed by a prediction of the forthcoming housing crash.

He and Mum made a happy home for us in Stretton, where, over more than 35 years, Dad fought a mostly-successful battle with two acres of land, converting a paddock into a much-loved orchard; while the crumbling two-hundred-year-old house proved a bigger challenge. Happily, with the catalyst of an immensely kind friend, they were eventually able to escape, so that Dad could live out his last years in the bungalow that he came to adore.

With the arrival of grandchildren, Dad reinvented himself as this amazing fun-loving character known as Grumpy Gramps, inspiring love and joy, and I know that we will hear more about that later.

His vast knowledge came in handy in compiling the annual quiz, which was, for many years, a staple of the Stretton WI calendar. He also thoroughly enjoyed participating in the U3A Philosophy group. In recent years, as the big brain tragically faded, we imagined, with some bafflement, the course of those philosophical debates. But the lovely, warm words that Mum received from Brian, leader of the Philosophy group, suggest that he remained a valued member, even when his mind was not as sharp.

And so, finally, I want to speak more personally. A fly on the wall in the family home, watching Dad, so often with his nose in a book, might form the opinion that he was a hands-off father. In a sense that’s true, but let me say this. He took me to my first football match. He led me to the top of Snowdon when I was seven years old. He played me folk and blues records. He was there with me when I first cycled into town. He brought home our first computer, and sat beside me as we typed in programmes together. He taught me about worm composting! He extolled the importance of saving for an early retirement. He coached me in investing. His influence runs through me like the blood through my veins; he fired my greatest enthusiasms, he inspired my life goals.

I will always be grateful. Thank you Dad.

A GPS tracker for ultra-endurance cyclists

[Preserving this write-up I submitted as an entry in an electronic design competition].

Cycle Tourist

Ultra-endurance cycling events are becoming more and more popular. Events such as the Transcontinental Race (4,000km, unsupported, from Belgium to Turkey or Greece) require cyclists to ride for upwards of 16 hours a day, often catching just a few hours sleep, bivvying at the roadside to avoid wasting time on hotel checkins. Some events, such as the Audax UK “Lumpy End-to-End”, 1,800km in 8 days, require validation by GPS track. Opportunities for charging battery-powered devices are few and far between. While most participants use a dedicated consumer GPS device, or mobile phone, for navigation and capture of their track, there is a serious risk that batteries fail en route. It would be devastating to complete such an event, but not to capture the relevant GPS validation track. The purpose of my device is to provide a very low-power, simple GPS tracker, that can run unattended for days at a time on a single battery charge. It could be used as either the primary, or a backup, GPS tracker for ultra-endurance races.


Key requirements for such a device include:

  • Low-power. Rechargeable battery powered with ability to run for several days without a charge.
  • Weather-proof. There is a high probability of heavy rain at some point on such a long event. The device must exclude water.
  • High data storage capacity. Each GPS track point requires 32 bytes, in a suitable binary format. The device must record a point at least every 5 seconds for validation. Hence the device must be capable of storing more than 0.5MB per day in non-volatile storage.

Selection of components

  • ESP32. This microcontroller has many advantages which contribute to delivering the requirements outlined above. Low-power: The device can operate in deep sleep mode, consuming 10 µA, for much of the time e.g. for 4.5 seconds in every 5 second sample period. While collecting track points from the GPS device, the device is powered-up, but WiFi and Bluetooth are not required, so the radios can be disabled. Miniature. Even in a development board format (in this case the ESP32-PICO-KIT board), the device is small enough to be housed in a compact, lightweight enclosure that can be carried unobtrusively by the cyclist. WiFi. The device operates standalone while collecting GPS tracks, but at the end of event, we need to retrieve the saved track. This can easily be achieved by activating WiFi and a simple web server, allowing the GPS file to be downloaded. Touch-sensors. By using touch sensors as switches, e.g. to switch between tracking and track-retrieval mode, we avoid the need to open up physical ports on the enclosure, thus minimising opportunities for water ingress.
  • U-blox MAX-8C GPS. U-blox GPS devices are cheap and easy to obtain. They provide support for text-based NMEA protocol, as well as proprietary UBX binary format. However, many of the development boards are not designed with low-power in mind. MAX-8C is inherently low-power, and can be built into a low-power board such as this one from Uputronics. Typical current during GPS acquisition is 18mA, but low-power modes provide potential for this to drop to around 4mA post-acquisition and during tracking.
  • Winbond W25Q256FVFG External SPI Flash. The ESP32-PICO-KIT provides 4MB of flash memory, but much of this is consumed with firmware and program storage, leaving no more than 2MB available for storing GPS trackpoints. Given our aspiration to record a track for many days at a consumption rate of 0.5MB per day, I identified the need to interface to a further external SPI flash chip. The Winbond W25Q256FVFG provides 32MB of additional flash, which will support 60 days of GPS track recording.
  • LiFePO4 battery. All the above components run at a standard Vcc of 3.3V, therefore – with a suitable voltage regulator – many options of battery format are possible, including LiPo (3.7V – 4.2V), Alkaline, NiMH. LiFePO4 batteries are an attractive option, because the nominal voltage is 3.2V, and the discharge curve is very flat, dropping below 3.0V only after releasing around 95% of its total capacity. This means that 3.3V devices can be reliably powered without a voltage regulator, avoiding the associated inefficiencies. A drawback is that these batteries are heavier and more bulky than LiPo batteries of comparable capacity.
  • TP5000 LiFePO4 charging module. The LiFePO4 battery, which is sealed inside the enclosure, can be charged with 5V from a typical USB charger, via an internal TP5000 charging module. To prevent water ingress, a 5V DC jack with rubber seal is used in preference to a mini- or micro-USB connector.
  • Touch-pad hardware. Touch-pads are implemented with a metallic disc attached on the inside of the enclosure. A steel washer has been used successfully. Further work is required to evaluate alternatives e.g. a copper rivet, for sensitivity and precision.

Design approach

Software is developed in C/C++ using ESP-IDF development framework. Tasks within the framework include:

  • GPS. Initialise the GPS device with the sample rate and protocol messages required. GPS location acquisition can be accelerated by using AssistNow Offline (u-blox), meaning that GPS information (ephemeris and almanac) can be downloaded from an Internet site over WiFi for 35 days into the future. Then, when the device is powered-on, the relevant day’s offline data is downloaded to the GPS device. This speeds up acquisition from 30 seconds to around 5 seconds. Once GPS location has been acquired, the GPS device sends a trackpoint via UART to the ESP32 host once every 5 seconds. A binary message, UBX-NAV-PVT, is used, because it encodes the location data in a relatively compact binary format. The received UART data wakes the ESP32, which, with minimal processing, writes the location data in the same binary format, via SPI, to external flash. The ESP32 can then return to deep sleep. This 5 second cycle will repeat indefinitely for as long as the device is in track-recording mode. A simple file system is implemented on the flash (esp32_fatflash by Illucius) to allow tracks to be associated as files, and so that they can be deleted by the user, and the storage occupied by that track can be made available for reuse.
  • Touch-pad. A second ESP-IDF task monitors for touch pad events. A long-press on a touch pad triggers a software event, which switches the device to “track-retrieval mode”. This activates WiFi and a simple web server. This will normally only occur when the ride is over; the device may be powered with external 5V supply at this time, and the additional power consumption will not be a problem.
  • WiFi / Web server. A third ESP-IDF task, triggered to be created in “track-retrieval mode”, WiFi will activate (could be either as a station on a pre-configured SSID, or as an AP providing a new, temporary SSID). A web server will be started, offering, via a browser page, a list of GPS tracks available for download. Each will be identified according to its start time, which is readily discoverable by decoding the first trackpoints of the binary trackpoint data stored in external flash. When the web client selects a track to download, the web server will decode trackpoints read from external flash, on-the-fly, converting them into the industry-standard GPX file format. The web server will also provide the ability to delete selected files, which will result in an entry being deleted from the list of tracks held in flash, and the flash pages used by that track being returned to a free page pool.

Development status

The hardware elements have been acquired and integrated on breadboard. Each of the main capabilities has been prototyped in software and demonstrated individually, i.e. ESP32-GPS integration, ESP32-external flash (both direct page read/write and via FAT), WiFi and web server, LiFePO4 battery operation and charging, touch sensor detection. The capabilities have not yet been integrated into a single working firmware build; this is work in progress. The current software implementation can be consulted here. Further work is also needed to design the enclosure to accommodate the hardware in a compact, weatherproof format. The build needs to be optimised for power consumption. Initial measurements suggest a current-draw of around 35mA in track-recording mode, but I believe this can be reduced below 20mA with optimised use of deep sleep, and with careful power management of the GPS module. This suggests the device could operate for 3 days on a single 1600mAh LiFePO4 battery, or 6 days on two. I look forward to completing this unfinished work, but wanted to submit an entry for the competition in time for the deadline.

Potential further enhancements

Because the ESP32 is also blessed with Bluetooth, the possibility exists to also track Bluetooth sensors such as heart-rate monitors and pedal-power meters. This would clearly increase power consumption compared to simple GPS tracking, but in certain circumstances it might be an attractive trade-off.

June 2017: Mike Hall’s Wake

A gathering, centred around the village of Abbeycwmhir, in mid-Wales, to celebrate the life of Mike Hall. Winner of multiple ultra-distance, self-supported bicycle races and organiser of the Transcontinental Race. Mike was killed by a car driver south of Canberra, Australia, during the inaugural Indian Pacific Wheel Race, on 31 March 2017.

Danube: Baia – Tulcea

80% of our hotel bookings have been made via, and we have found some great places. The review scores and comments are really helpful but occasionally you get a misery-guts who pans a nice place. “Orange Juice with breakfast was charged as extra, but not mentioned when served” said Istvan about Hotel Mondial. We found the place very nice, the staff were helpful, but when the waitress asked us “would you like Orange Juice with breakfast” I shot Caroline a look to say “it’s a trap!”

Baia to Tulcea was effectively our final bike tour day. The Danube has already divided into multiple branches, and Tulcea is where land turns to swamp. We will take a boat trip to Sulina today, where swamp turns to sea, and then return here for one more day ride to the railway station at Galati, from where we travel to Bucharest and fly home. It’s been a long trip and I think we are ready for home.

Strava: here

Danube: Constanta – Baia

Slightly awkward departure from Villa Anticus, our hotel, this morning. When we checked in, the proprietor was at pains to tell us not to allow any strangers to follow us us in through the front door. “There are many people passing here. Guests have their own key. Do not let anyone enter!” Pause for emphasis. “Do not forget!”.

This morning, ready to leave and waiting for our bikes to be brought up from the cellar, I thought I would step outside and ring the doorbell to get attention. Step back inside and conscious of someone following me. Put shoulder firmly against door to thwart the invader. Eventually realise it is our host and I am expelling him forcefully from his own house!
North of Constanta, the Mamaia beach strip stretches for miles and miles. It’s extraordinary how much accommodation capacity is available on this coast, and more part-built on the way. Then again, Romania has less than 100km of beachy coastline, for a population of 7 million, so they have to pack them in.

Picnic lunch in Säcele, where an old fellow with a long staff was sitting on a nearby bench. A few spots of rain and he retreats into a covered bus stop. Rain dries up and he emerges again. I become convinced he has been engaged by the village as a life-sized Austrian weather house.

Half an hour before we were due to arrive at our isolated hotel in Baia, the heavens opened with an almighty thunderstorm. Absolutely pelted with rain. But welcomed in to a comfortable room with whirlpool bath. It seemed like fun to share the bath but forgot that cyclists at the end of the day are prone to cramp; cue comedy leaps, splashes and stretches.

Strava: here

Danube: Vama Veche – Constanta

Stefan, our young host at Vama Veche, spoke great English. We found out why. “I worked for a year in Scotland, at Blair Atholl.” Hmm, that sounds familiar, in the Highlands, right? “Yes at the House of Bruar”. Suddenly we remembered, we had been there on our Scottish bike tour of 2015, a very large, roadside, shopping complex with would-be posh restaurant, designed for coach loads of mostly American tourists. Caroline just bitterly reminded me “you couldn’t buy a newspaper there”. Stefan loved the area though, Pitlochry was nice and he would go for runs in the hills, which he won’t do in Vama Veche because he’s scared of the dogs.

Speaking of which, we have not been bothered much by roaming dogs since a week ago back in the west of Romania. Yesterday a few big ones gave chase. You’ll read many recommendations about how to deal with them. Ultrasonic hooters, pepper sprays, make eye contact, don’t make eye contact, etc. This time I’ve been following advice to greet them with an enthusiastic “Hello Johnny!” It works just as well as anything else.

Reaching Constanta was an ordeal, on the manic E87 again, which poured its traffic into the city as if the M1 just dumped its load into Watford. Although our hotel is lovely, and we enjoyed a really nice Lebanese meal, we’ve found the city a bit crap. It’s got a glorious history, Jason of the Argonauts visited, but recent improvements haven’t really tamed the Communist-era concrete and poor planning.

And it feels a little bit intimidating. Small children selling flowers at the waterfront restaurants are nothing unusual, but I’m not sure why this one thought hitting me with a stick multiple times would help make a sale.

Strava: here