I had read all the tour books, studied and marked my maps, and tuned up my bike. It was time for the adventure to begin. I was off on a twelve day trip to the south and west coasts of England alternating biking and riding the trains.
Four years ago while in England I had borrowed a mountain bike and ridden from Dover to Brighton. The views were breath taking but so were the hills. In two and a half days I had covered less than 90 miles but I was completely exhausted ... this, even though I run daily and do enough biking to enter the occasional triathlon. Part of the problem was the competitor in me won’t let me take long enough rest breaks ... I’d check out the view and push on.
On the train ride back to London it hit me that rests on the train would allow me to see more of the country while regaining my strength for another biking leg. I decided on my next British biking journey I would buy a Britrail pass which would allow me to get on and off the train without worrying about how much each rest-ride might cost me ... and if I got too tired I could just continue exclusively on the train.
When I began planning I knew I wanted to see the Isle of Wight and the coast at Land’s End in Cornwall. As I read more, I became interested in other destinations along the south and west coasts. In the end I had so many places on my want-to-see-list that I knew my trip would again be fast paced ... I had to hope that the train trips between places would indeed allow me to recover enough to complete the whole journey. Along the way I would get a bit of ribbing from the Brits about my American-keep-it-moving style of travel.
I had decided to take my old hybrid bike with me and then leave it in England when I returned home. Even the cost of buying a cheap bike and shipping it over is less than renting a bike for twelve days. Add to that, knowing my bike had all the racks, lights, tools, and speedometers I wanted, made all the taking apart, packing, and putting back together a viable option to finding a bicycle shop from which to rent.
My first worry on the actual trip was getting my bike there safely. After practically disassembling my bike in order to put it into a factory bike box, I filled the rest of the box with my full bike packs, helmet, and shoes. If anything happened to that box, the whole trip was gone. I need not have worried because Delta took good care of my bike and of me. It was my first bike trip but not theirs.
I had tried to pack lightly and I’m glad I did because the fifteen or so pounds I carried made the ride noticeably harder than an ordinary ride back home. Rather than offer a lot of advice on what to pack just let me say that you should include a full tool kit including extra tubes, your rain suit, and some room for a little food and lots of water.
My first bike ride began at Amberly which is on the secondary rail line down to the coast from London and Gatwick Airport. A half hour south of Gatwick, Amberly station appears to be in the middle of nowhere. At the end of the station road I already had to ask directions. I’m good at reading maps, and generally speaking British roads are well marked, but even with my inch thick packet of maps and zeroxed guidebook pages, I seemed to be asking directions quite often. More often than not these inquiries led to an extended conversation in which I found out more about the area than my guides and maps could ever tell me. Being a little lost added greatly to my sense of adventure ... and since in southern England there is a town nearly every five miles, you can’t ever be more than a little lost.
Barely a mile west of Amberly station is Houghton and the first thatched roof and the first pub of many to be seen on the trip. From there I headed north on a one lane country road through fields of ripened wheat highlighted by brilliant red poppys scattered wildly though them. On both sides of Bury, which is a village of the sort you picture in rural England, where several horsefarms. The horses had the sleek look of thoroughbreds.
I passed the Bignor Roman Villa which appeared to be a tiny pay-to-see site out in the middle of a field. At the top of the next hill was a tiny, old country church and cemetery surrounded by a stone wall. I took my first break to soak up the view and mop my brow. Little did I know that I would later look back on this hill as merely a bump in the road ... and not much later at that.
CHURCH OUTSIDE BIGNOR
Within a mile I was pushing my bike up into Sutton. There were several more challenges during the eight or ten miles north to Petworth.
Petworth is a very nice regional center where a couple major highways converge into a one way, single lane loop at the center of the old town. I bought a sausage roll and pastry at a bakery and sat out front watching a surprising volume of weekday traffic go by. I pedaled up to Petworth House, a grand country manor sitting high above the town. Unfortunately it was the one-day of the week on which it was closed. I lamented briefly with an elderly British couple who were also disappointed to find the solid wood gates blocking their view.
Heading out of town toward Fittleworth there were several big hills along a main road. It was then that I first realized that the automobiles were giving way for me. If they couldn’t cross the centerline to give me a wide berth, they would slow behind me and wait for room to pass. At first that made me nervous, but I later realized I was very safe even on the busiest of roads. Just past Fittworth I encountered a tour bus letting off some German tourists to hike along a small creek. It made me feel good to know that people were paying to get to a place I had just stumbled across ... and this was to be no where nearly the nicest creek I was to see on my journey.
Three hours and nineteen miles later and I was back at Amberly station at the end of my first loop. Five minutes later I was back on to the train ... I was to have incredible luck getting to train stations just in time to board for my next destination even though I seldom had a local service schedule.
On the train I talked with a couple who were taking the afternoon off work to ride down into Chichester in order to take a four hour hike back to Amberly along a ridge route ... every area of England has its own trails used by locals and tourists alike. While I saw many other bikers, there were hundreds if not thousands of hikers paralleling my route.
Chichester seemed to be a very modern town. The streets and roads I traveled were wider and freer flowing than the ones I was used to finding in England. The high street (main street) has been paved over into a pedestrian mall as is the case in many major English cities. I’m always surprised how busy these shopping districts are, even on weekdays. Mothers stroll, kids rush around, and old folks sit. Stores seem busy and there are no empty storefronts. Shopping malls have finally come to Great Britain but they have not yet killed the high street. Apparently the only small merchants to be hurt so far are the neighborhood groceries. Huge supermarkets with aggressive pricing have made it rough on the little guys whom many car-less Brits have depended upon.
I had chosen to stop at Chichester to see its cathedral. I wasn’t disappointed. It’s been recently cleaned and restored. I walked through it with a busload of German tourists. I’m always surprised that tour groups include places like Chichester on their itinerary. It’s a bit out of the way and somewhat obscure. Maybe European travel agents take more pride in seeking out different destinations like this. Still, it is a very nice place to visit, one I could recommend.
After arriving in England someone had told me that the marinas south of Chichester were picturesque places to visit so I had added them to my list of places to go. All along the way, if anyone suggested I see something, I went to see it. I was always pleased that I had ... locals are usually proud with reason.
Outside the cathedral a couple ladies debated which route I should take to the sea ... it turns out there are a dozen different estuaries nearby along the coast. I can’t remember the name of the marina they decided to direct me toward but I didn’t end up there. I pedaled into the sun and ocean breeze missing a turn or two until I came to Bosham (pronounced Baa-zum). It was beautiful ... thatched roofs, flowered gardens (yards), tiny shops, a church yard complete with cemetery, and wandering geese all nestled against the shore. High tide had covered a shoreline road so the harbor views came at the end of streets which dead ended into the sea. You couldn’t begin to count the boats anchored in this small village harbor.
I didn’t have to bike back into Chichester because Bosham had its own little station on the Portsmouth line. Unfortunately it wasn’t a regular stop so when I arrived just in time to see a train pulling out I knew I was in for a wait. As it turned out this was to be one of only two waits of over fifteen minutes that I would have to endure during my whole journey. I struck up a conversation with a lady who told me the Isle of Wight ferrys ran frequently out of Portsmouth.
Portsmouth station is right on the ferry docks. Since there were ferries every half hour I could see what ever I wanted in Portsmouth. Unfortunately just as I arrived there the sky clouded over and as I racked my bike at Portsmouth harbor where there are museums, old ships, and many shops, it began to rain and it got quite cold. A sunny summer day in Southern England is usually 75 degrees but when it rains it’s probably not 60. Because of the weather, an hour of this tourist stop was enough for me.
The Isle of Wight (pronouced White) ferries are quite busy. There were workers returning home to Wight, holiday families returning to Wight after a day in the city, and tourists going over for the first time. The trip was very disappointing in that the steady rainfall had dropped visibility down under a mile. There were no harbor views and no spectacular panoramas ahead to Wight. First a black lump appeared, then the city of Ryde bled out of the fog, and finally a long, empty pier reached out in the waves to meet us. It wasn’t a encouraging start to a part of the trip I was looking forward to the most.
The Isle of Wight lies about five miles off the coast of England ... about twenty minutes by ferry. It’s a mass of hills and rock with spectacular scenery both along the coast and on the interior roads. It would make a great destination trip for those less adventuresome ... those on foot or in a car. There are quaint hotels, bed and breakfasts, beach resorts, and campgrounds along with castles, country estates, ruins, and beachfront amusement parks. There is a five-hour, round-the-island bus that touches on almost everywhere you would want to go plus more direct routes between major towns.
The ferry drops you off at Ryde which could be categorized as a typical English seafront town starting with its pier. There is a rocky beach, carnival rides, souvenir shops, ice cream vendors, and plenty of fish and chips. There are grand old hotels with sitting rooms, dark little places with shared baths, and friendly bed and breakfasts. All in all it’s not my kind of place.
I stayed at the first B&B I saw ... after pumping all the way up to the top of the steep bluff that Ryde sits upon looking for something better. The Georgian Hotel gave me a nice room with its own hot water shower for only £15 (about $23) ... only once did I pay more and I paid as little as £12. After warming up in the that hot shower I walked the esplanade and the two main streets to find a place to eat. I settled on a family restaurant where I shared a table with a South African.
Jack was in the middle of a month long trip selling sailing equipment. At least once a year he takes leave from his regular job to sail a boat back to South Africa for a customer. Wherever I travel I come across people like Jack who put aside their day-to-day work to pursue their dreams. While others act, Americans keep on dreaming.
After supper we walked down the esplanade with a view of a beautiful sunset peeking out from under receding clouds. The tide had gone out leaving a bleak beach of rock two or three hundred yards wide. It had also left the boats in an enclosed marina high and dry. Big sailboats stood slightly askew held up by their keel boards stuck in the mud. If you were at sea, you’d have to stay out till the next high tide.
The next morning I was awake pretty early in part due to not being used to the six hour time change and in part due to the many cars and trucks growling up the steep hill outside my room. Since breakfast wasn’t until nine ... why so late I have no idea ... I walked down to the train station and put my rail pass to use.
Wight has a single train service that runs from Ryde down the east coast to Shanklin. At first glance the twenty-minute trip seems hardly worth the effort to keep it operating. It was there before busses and it stays because there are tourists all down the coast with time on their hands ... time to take the train into Ryde and do some shopping. Given the beautiful countryside I was to see later that day, the trip was pretty uninteresting.
It was my first full English breakfast so I was glad to be eating late and hungry. A full English breakfast begins with fruit or juice followed by a plate heaping with four link sausages, two pieces of bacon (ham to an American), three or four heated tomatoes, a fried egg, a piece of toast fried in butter, maybe a pile of baked beans, and all the tea and toast you want. Follow that with a day of sunbathing and you wouldn’t fit into your suit by the end of the week. For someone like me, setting out on six or so hours of bike riding, it was a great start to the day.
The sun was shining brightly as I set off down the beach-front at the start of my ride around the Isle of Wight. I was pleased that I felt no fatigue from the day before ... my plan to rail and ride was apparently working. Four and a half minutes later I was walking ... pushing my bike up what seemed to be straight up an endless mountain which in reality was just the big hill behind Ryde. By the time I got to the top of the hill at Nettlestone maybe four miles along I was ready for my first break. There wasn’t much there so I was soon coasting down to Bembridge, a nice little harbor town.
Climbing up and out of town I set my sights on a distant tower that I thought was the Bembridge Windmill. When I lost sight of it near an airport I asked directions. The guy looked over his shoulder and said, “There it is.” It wasn’t the shape I had been chasing, but sure enough it was a windmill. He guided me up a shortcut that was probably just a sheep trail. A mountain bike enthusiast would have loved it, but I was too loaded down to find it fun.
Promoted as the oldest operating windmill on the island it was interesting ... more importantly it was a great break. From its hilltop position there were some great views out narrow window slits and through the blades. Rather than bounce back down the sheep trail, I took the long way, coasting downhill on a nice road through a forest. Soon it was climbing time again.
Eventually I caught up with a Dutch couple that I met as I arrived at the windmill which didn’t impress them as much as it did me. Now why wouldn’t the Dutch be impressed with a windmill? We kind of jockeyed back and forth a couple times as they pedaled slowly straight up while I repeated cycles of hard pedaling and walking. At a main cross road we stopped together and I decided that since they had a map with a definite route on it, I would join them for a while. We picked up signs marking the route just outside Brading and followed them together the rest of the day.
The route went south, up and down farm lanes and narrow country roads. As I look at a map now I’m not sure exactly which roads we did follow, but eventually we ended up at Appuldurcombe (Apple-cum-bee), the ruin of a 18th century manor house. It wasn’t time but German bombers that had reduced the palatial estate to stark, stonewalls. It was a peaceful country setting for an afternoon’s picnic which all the visitors but us seemed to be doing. All we had was fruit and candy. The red roofed town of Wroxall just below the estate had served as the home of the manner’s workers.
It was three thirty when we stopped into a small shop in Ventnor to buy some cheese and bread for our lunch. Coons and Karin also bought provisions for supper as they were camping out during their trip. Going down out of Ventnor was a wild roller coaster ride. We were going well over thirty miles an hour even with the brakes on. After struggling up the hills you never get to enjoy the full advantage of a downhill because you just don’t know what’s around the next curve. It was here that I developed the adage “At the bottom of every hill is round-about.”
Of course every downhill is followed by an uphill and the one into Niton was a bear. I got in town enough ahead of Coons and Karin to take a toilet break. Virtually every town has a public toilet but not necessarily a gas station where we would stop in America.
Just past Niton we climbed up St. Catherine’s Hill. While I rode and walked, Coons and Karin whom had six more lower gears than I did pedaled all the way up ... but I made it to the top before they did. If I hadn’t already planned to walk when ever necessary I would have learned then and there: There is no shame in walking. You get there one way or the other. The views at the top of St. Catherine’s Hill are well worth the work to get there. We could see westerly the whole twenty miles to the end of the island. I should note that we did not actually climb up the dirt road to the very top of St.Catherine’s, another two or three hundred feet higher.
Just past Chale at the bottom of St. Catherine’s, we got off the main road we had been on since Ventnor. Our last hour’s ride that day was over gently rolling country side on narrow farm lanes through tiny villages of less than a hundred people. Riding side by side it was an idyllic end to a hard day’s riding. At Yafford we stopped at a water mill and talked to a guy who had retired to Wight. He had us ready to buy property on the spot ... with the water mill, sheep, cattle, ducks and cool breeze it was some spot.
It was nearly 5:30 when we made our way into Brighstone where Coons and Karin were going to go down to the coast to a campground for the night. I’d have stayed there in Brighstone but we were far enough off the main track that there was only one B&B and it was full. So were the next three I came across. I was getting worried and exhausted when the last of these told me of a B&B on a farm down a lane outside Hulverstone. I’d have never found it because there was no sign until you were on the actual farm lane off the main road.
Todd Carter’s farm is a working sheep ranch and at six that evening no one was at the house. They were all out working including seven-year old Phillip. He was guiding sheep through a gate so his mum (mother) Jackie could give them their worm medicine. Todd was in a barn readying a tractor for an evening’s hay cutting so grandfather Dick Carter showed me around. Dick had come down from Somerset several years before and all were quite pleased with the move. High above their farm as a manor house that had served as headquarters of the Canadian army stationed in the area during WW II. From his pasture we could look down to the ocean a mile or so away. We watched the sun set behind the hills to the west.
Back at the sheep pens it was after eight when Jackie finished her chores. It was then that I first went into the house to see my room. They had added three rooms to their modern farmhouse in order to accommodate B&B patrons, most of whom were foreigners.
While she fixed supper we traded family stories. Phillip wanted to know if America was a bigger island than England which of course was a bigger island than Wight. It was well after nine before Todd came in from the fields. Supper of fresh lamb and farm vegetables was superb ... worthy of the finest hotel. We talked till 10:30.
Much of the talk centered on life on the farm. Britain’s mad cow disease scare had cost them dearly, devaluing their herd. When the local supermarket had reduced beef prices in half Jackie and all the other farm wives had bought all the meat they could fit into their freezers. Of course so did everyone else in the country, further depressing the beef market. Todd said it was a struggle to balance new farming techniques and new rules with proven ways of keeping a farm productive. It’s not just dusk to dawn work on summer days that makes farming a hard business.
The rain was back the next morning ... slow and steady. Hoping it would soon stop we slowly ate breakfast. It was kind of a big family breakfast with the Carters minus Todd who, rain or not, was out working, and the other guests, a couple from Hampshire. I would have been content to just forget about riding and stayed on that day, but Jackie had reservations for a full house that night.
About 9:30 I went out to the shed and packed up my bike but decided it was raining too hard to start just yet. Back in the house I talked to Jackie and played with Phillip till well after noon. Though it was still misty and windy, I put on my rain suit and took off. Again I was stopped within fifteen minutes but this time it was to take off my jacket. Gore-tex keeps the rain out but the heat in, so even though it was barely sixty degrees, I was sweating and hot. It was a fairly easy ride to Freshwater Bay where I seemed to be guessing at each corner which way to go to get to the Western tip of the Isle of Wight. Maybe the signs were there but with my head down, pumping up the hills I may not have seen them.
It seemed to be up hill the last couple miles out to the Needles which is the western most point on the Isle of Wight. Even harder than dealing with a strong head wind was knowing somewhere out there in the mist were some great views of the coast that I couldn’t see. A short fast drop down to Alum Bay was also a drop into a fog bank. The chair lift down to the sea just disappeared over the edge.
There was one last climb up to the Needles Battery, an old fortress high on the 500 foot cliffs. Occasionally a terrific wind gust would open a view back toward Alum Bay but generally it was like moving through a scene from Edgar Allen Poe. Up on the Battery itself the howling wind kept the fog pressed on the shore so that the Needles rocks were visible off shore. I was chilled to the bone with my only bright spot being the hope that, by now being on the island’s western most spot, it meant the wind should be to my back for the rest of the day.
Heading back east the rain started again, but that wasn’t the worst. Suddenly I was hearing an ominous sound from the front of my bike. It sounded like the bearings were running dry. All I could think of was my bike shop guy telling me that the main thing wrong my cheap Huffy bike from Wal-Mart was that one day the bearing would just give out. I stopped under a tree and did a little adjusting ... told you that a tool kit was necessary ... rode a bit and readjusted. Then the noise and the rain stopped.
On through Totland the hills were lower and the wind was at my back. It was a wide, main road but there was little traffic. Even in built up areas, rural England is beautiful ... well kept homes with flowering gardens, stands of woods, and pastures full of sheep and cows. As I coasted down into Yarmouth my spirits were revived.
Yarmouth is a treasure of a small coast town with less than a thousand inhabitants. Its marinas were full of boats of all sizes and its streets bustled with every type of holidaymaker. Boats and tourists easily outnumbered locals. I sat on a jetty and ate my cheese and bread, oblivious to the cool overcast. Yarmouth has its own ferry across to Lymington on the edge of the New Forest. This would be a nice place to spend some time ... but I was an American on the go.
The next few miles along a main road were a bit of a let down but things picked up as soon as I turned off toward Newtown. Even though the Old Town Hall was locked tight and there are only a dozen houses there, it was easy to put yourself back in time here in one of Wight’s earliest settlements.
The ride into Cowes (Cow-z) was much like riding in southern Illinois. A long walk up hill through the suburbs of Cowes was reward by a fast coast down to the seashore. Cowes has a couple mile long waterfront complete with promenade and elegant hotels. It was the first day of the Cowes Week regatta and several big boats were braving the stormy seas. It seemed to me that Cowes might make a better base on Wight than Ryde if you wanted to make a city your base ... myself, I’d opt for Carter’s farm.
Cowes is split in half by the River Medina which is probably the widest five mile long river you’ll ever see. The only way to cross it remains a chain driven ferry. I had to cross it to get to the ferry port in East Cowes. I was hoping that my trip in through the Southampton harbor would yield more sights than that from Portsmouth to Ryde, and it did.
The closer we got to the mainland of England, the clearer it got. The problem was that much of what we could see was industrial. Being that this is the busiest port in the south of England, one would expect that. I hadn’t found any reason to stay in Southampton so I went straight to the train station and boarded a train for Brockenhurst on the edge of the New Forest. That turned out to be a costly mistake.
It was Saturday night in one of the prime tourist destinations in the nation and I got there at 7:30. Every place in town was full save one ... the stately and upper crust Cloud Hotel. I yielded £50 to them and parked my bike in the protected back yard next to a red Ferrari. I took an extra long shower in an attempt to get my money’s worth and headed out for some fish and chips.
Tourists always joke about the myriads of fish and chips shops in England. They may be everywhere but with good reason. They offer huge portions of several varieties of fish along three times the chips (wedge cut french fries) you’d get at McDonald's. It is consistently great eating at the cheapest food price in the isles ... usually less than five dollars. I had fish and chips three different night on my journey, being careful to order a different kind of fish each time so as to maintain variety in my diet. At the same time I choose to ignore the great quantities of grease absorbed by the traditional paper wrap in which the feast is served.
By the way ... dinner at the Cloud was offered at £17 or $25.
|THE NEW FOREST|
The new day dawned bright and sunny in the New Forest. A five minute ride from my hotel and I was on the gravel roads of the New Forest ... which was new in the time of William the Conqueror. The trails, which were cut to facilitate the king’s hunt, are now walked and ridden by legions of ordinary folks. Any wild life still there remains hidden in the underbrush, but visible everywhere are the vast numbers of wild horses that call New Forest home. They quietly munch the greenery without regard for the visitors to their domain. It is a delight for a little kid ... or the little kid in me.
Armed with a map and written directions for my trip through the forest, I was again asking questions at the first divide in the road and most subsequent ones. I stumbled out on to a main road on the south and turned back only to find myself at a train track to the north. A couple who spend their weekends riding in the park showed me their map and off I went ... and fifteen minutes after leaving them, I found myself riding straight toward them. Reversing again, I finally reached the first of two gates out of the Forest. I left by way of Furzey Lodge, a kind of keepers’ (rangers’) station.
From there it’s only a couple miles to Beaulieu. It is the ultimate lord’s country estate-turned tourist park. Rather than the usual gravel parking, there were acres of paved lots inhabited by scores of tour busses. The entry pavilion was worthy of Disneyland.
My first order of business was to find out how to pronounce the place. I had been butchering the name for days and had heard several variations from other people. Finally knowing it was Bewlee was a great relief.
A friend had told me that I should go there to see the National Motor Museum. It alone probably would have been worth a drive down from London. You didn’t have to be a car enthusiast to enjoy this walk through history. I was especially happy to see that they considered a 1965 Mustang worthy of their exhibit since I am the proud owner of a ‘66 convertible.
There is more to Beaulieu than the Museum. The grounds are the hereditary home of the Earls of Montague. The Second Earl had begun the car collection and the Third Earl put it in a modern building and made it all a moneymaker. A monorail connected the Museum and gardens to the main house.
In the house the Earl had posted stories in each room about his life in the house. That combined with the many-labeled family pictures made this one of the best home tours I’d ever been on even though the house is not particularly better than any others. One really got the feel of life in a castle.
Behind the house was the old Abbey, now partially in ruins. In front the garden over looks a creek and across it is the Village of Beaulieu where the hired help had lived in the old days. It was now a bit touristy but still quite nice.
When I returned to the roads I was in the middle of a bike ramble. Apparently it was a forty-mile loop from Lymington to Brockenhurst through the New Forest on the highway to Beaulieu and back to southern way. I passed a few people and got passed by some in a bigger hurry than me. Unfortunately little actual contact was made with any of them. Most seemed be on group outings.
The village Buckler’s Hard is mentioned in the tour books but when I arrived there I found it cordoned off by money collectors. There was some sort of medieval festival going on. I wasn’t in the mood for that and, hoping it wasn’t really any better than Beaulieu Village, I continued onward.
Down the lane at a turn in the road called St. Leonard’s Grange there was one of those skeletal ruins of a building that fascinates me so much. Standing with its back to the sun, this old tythe barn seemed more majestic in death than in life.
From there I turned back toward Brockenhurst. Across the fields to my left I kept seeing views of what I thought was a river. Finally referring to my maps I realised that it was actually the Solent, the channel between the Isle of Wight and the mainland. The perspective from along this lowland road made the five mile distant Wight seem like it was just across the fields and a river.
Around Norleywood the fields were full of wild flowers, particularly heather. Along the way as I stopped to photograph flowers, I passed and repassed a family out for a Sunday ride. The kids pedaled furiously on their tiny-wheeled bikes as they sought to out run their father while their mother dutifully or maybe breathlessly brought up the rear.
At Pilley’s Bailey I passed by a crowded pub to press on into the Royden Wood Nature Preserve ... but only after a couple trips up and down the main street to find the turn off. Through Royden I was off the road for the first time. The trail was wide but occasional roots and mud puddles required too much attention. I could have passed by deer or lovers without the slightest notion I had. The trail ended at the outskirts of Brockenhurst near the train station where I hopped the train to Winchester.
I think I wanted to go to Winchester because of some old 1960’s song about Winchester Cathedral that kept going around in the back of my mind. The whole notion was all rather vague, but I’m sure glad I had it. Winchester is a prize of a city. The paved over high street mall runs down from West Gate and the ruins of Castle Hall to the River Itchen and the East Gate. Along the river is a quiet walk way where the city’s sounds are absorbed by the babbling stream and calls of ducks and birds. The flats (apartments) across from the benches and flower gardens must be the most idyllic places to live in any city in the world.
|ITCHEN RIVER IN WINCHESTER|
Since it was after four o’clock when I got there I went straight to Wolvesey Castle. The old bishop’s quarters are a complete ruin that is unusual in one way. Normally when a place like this fell out of favor the residents immediately tore it down, stealing all the stones for their own building projects. In this case the dismantling stopped about half way through leaving a unique skeleton. The various techniques of medieval stone construction are clearly visible in thick walls and delicate arches.
Winchester Cathedral is worthy of the church of a town that was once the seat of government for William the Conqueror. While rather plain on the outside, its interior is grand 12th Century Gothic architecture. Its courtyard has been transformed in to a display of the modern sculptures of Adriene Wynne. It’s a very nice contrast.
My loosely organized itinerary planned for me to bike from Winchester 25 mile over to Salisbury, so at 5:30 I started up the high street. I got as far as the top where I saw a couple back packers studying a posted city map. I figured correctly this meant they were looking for a hostel. It was at the city’s old East Gate back at the bottom of the high street and near the river. I quickly decided that walking along that river would make a better evening than biking to who-knows-where. It was one of those fortunate decisions one sometimes makes.
The hostel was in a part of the historic Old Mill which straddles the River Itchen. For £12.75 I got a room and a dinner served in the Old Mill itself. The dinner was the best chicken potpie I’ve ever tasted followed by peach cobbler and ice cream ... maybe something is better than fish and chips. For company I had the two Dutch boys who I had spotted on the street corner.
Both before and after supper I walked along the river, stopping occasionally to sit and write in my diary. It was absolutely pastoral. As dark descended I came across an Austrian I had seen back at the hostel. Berhardt was a philosophy teacher, developing a bit of his own philosophy on a summer tour of Britain. We got a candy bar and soda at a Blockbuster Video store ... yea, I know, depressing ... and went back to the hostel and talked on till eleven when it was lights out time.
A hostel can be, and usually is, an adventure in itself. Not only were the bathrooms down the hall as usual, but in this case in a basement hallway with six foot of headroom ... at least the water was hot. I shared a room which had two bunk beds with three others including an Italian father and son. Every time I turned over the bed squeaked so much it woke me, and the rock hard pillow numbed my ears. In the early hours of the morning I found out that East Gate is a very busy part of town. At least by waking early I was the first in line for the bathrooms. For breakfast I toasted some of my bread for a fitting meal of bread and water.
The city streets were just coming to life as I rode up to the train station where I caught a train for Basingstoke. There I transferred eight minutes later for Salisbury. An hour on the train had replaced three hours of riding ... a good choice.
Once in Salisbury I had to again ask directions. I asked the right guy because he warned me off the highway to Stonehenge and sent me up the peaceful Avon River Valley. A couple minutes later I was asking another person if I was on the right track. Soon I got to the turnoff and was quickly in the countryside. A fork in the road put me along side the river, pedaling slightly uphill the whole eleven miles north to Stonehenge.
The Avon River Valley is one of those settings you always picture as rural England. They could have filmed an Ivory-Merchant film there. Between Lower, Middle, and then Upper Woodford there were swans swimming, families of ducks waddling, old men with walking sticks and dogs, ladies with aprons, along with thatched roofs and ancient tractors. It was even better coming back ...because then it was downhill.
I had been warned not to expect too much at Stonehenge so I was pleasantly surprised when I got there. It stands out in the middle of nowhere but right at the intersection of two busy highways. It’s up on high ground without a tree away where near it. Parking is in a somewhat hidden valley and you go through a tunnel under the road to get to the actual site. Once there a ten foot wide asphalt path circles the stones. There were at least a thousand people quietly, slowly making their way around the path listening on headphones to their taped tour guide provided as part of the admission price.
Despite what sounds like a commercialized site, Stonehenge seems to demand your reverence. Everyone seemed alone in their own thoughts. It is probably an ancient site of sun worshipers. Even in the wide-open spaces it seems somehow to be church-like. The question keeps going through your mind, “How could they possibly have gotten those stones there from a couple hundred miles away in Wales? How could they have moved these huge stones over 3500 years ago?” It only took 35 or 40 minutes to walk around it, but it was well worth the trip.
I ate a picnic lunch there with a hundred or so other people before pedaling back to Salisbury. Once there, I went to the Cathedral which, while quite large, is not as nice architecturally as its less famous neighbor at Winchester. I went through the nearby and boring Mompession House and missed the train to Exeter, so I went back to the high street and fiddled away an hour.
Nearly two hours later I was rushing through Exeter St. David’s Station to make a connection on to Paighton. Even though it was a 5:55 commuter train, the brakeman (conductor) let me on with my bike. It was so crowded that at every stop I had to move my bike for departing passengers. This branch train had been recommended in Paul Thoreuax in his book “Kingdom by the Sea” which was part of my inspiration for the trip. From Exeter to Dawlish the train runs right along side the mouth of the River Ex. Fifty feet away is a beach; a hundred feet away is the water; and across the water are beautiful green hills. The water is full of sail boards, boats, and swimmers ... a glorious fifteen minutes of training.
The half hour down to Paighton flew by with the help of a beautiful law student from Newton Abbott and then an Aussie who went to the University of Illinois just after I did. He was visiting relatives and assured me there were thousands of rooms in Paighton. There may have been, but it took me thirty minutes to find one that was empty. Maybe I’d have been happier if I had used the half hour to go on to Brixham, but I didn’t because I was fixating on finding a laundromat.When I checked in to the Barkley Hotel they told me where two laundromats were and I proceeded to pick the wrong one ... and I walked the mile there instead of riding. It had just closed. Luckily there was a great fish and chips place across the street. Actually my plan had been to put the laundry in and then go get some fish and chips just like my son Rob and I had done weekly nineteen years ago when we lived in England. Oh well, you can’t re-live things.
After eating I walked back along the beach which is lined with tiny changing rooms that look like outhouses. There are so many, so close together that at times it is hard to see the beach. There is also a full range of carnival rides, souvenirs, and cotton candy. The tackiness was made complete by loud, pushy crowds of teenagers. Again, not my kind of place.
Once more the morning began with an uphill ride and once again I was walking within five minutes. I wasn’t waking up tired ... it’s just that the hills are so steep and nothing was to be gained by trying to pedal all the way up. At least this morning there were constant views down to the sea. I had to be a little careful where I looked though because I was on a busy four lane highway.
After the turn off to Brixham it was downhill into the beautiful and quaint port town. Looking back at the town from the pier made me wish I had pushed on to there the night before. The town’s houses are stacked up along the steep hills of the small, horseshoe shaped harbor. The shops are aimed at a more mature trade, although there were still plenty of T-shirts available.
The back way out of Brixham isn’t made for traffic. The steep street was barely two lanes wide but it was a residential street with cars parked half on the sidewalk, half in the street. The sidewalk was so narrow that as I walked on it, I had to push my bike along in the street ... and I was doing plenty to walking along there. Out of town the road was both narrow and winding. That makes for a worrying combination ... a car rounding a corner in the middle of the road could well clip a cyclist hugging the shoulder. Luckily they stay wide, worrying about oncoming cars.
For 26 minutes I climbed upward, riding and walking. Then there was a hair raising four minutes downhill ... 35 miles per hour on a fully loaded bike is not all fun. Naturally I then had to go back up again ... a couple times. At least it wasn’t as steep or as before. The last downhill into Kingswear was particularly worrisome as the traffic was the worst anywhere on the trip. The line of cars waiting for the ferry across the River Dart was backed up past signs advising an hour’s wait. Given that there is a bridge a mile or two away, I found the line amazing.
I and a couple motorcycles carefully inched past the waiting cars. The ferry ride across the Dart afforded a view of both Kingswear and Dartmouth nestled on the hillsides of the river. It was nice ride but hardly worth an hour’s wait. On the other hand, sitting on the embankment of Dartmouth on a sunny, cool summer’s day was worth all the effort it took to get there. Dartmouth was one of the places that I visited that I think I could go back to and stay for a few days. There is a castle out at the narrow entrance to the sea and the Royal Naval Academy up on the hill overlooking the city.
Maybe the best thing to do there is to take a day trip up the River Dart to Totnes. Several boats make the hour and a quarter journey up the placid river. From the bustling harbor, the river quiets and narrows as it winds its way toward Totnes. Fishermen and water fowl line the banks as do new and old estates. We approached Totnes pier accompanied by a gaggle of beginning kayakers while naval academy midshipmen maneuvered shore patrol boats away from their anchorage.
At Totnes I went to the train station to find I had just missed the train but that was OK. I had an hour to ride up to the old Totnes Castle over looking the town. From it’s round walls there is also a view off in the distance down the river. I sat in the shade of the castle walls eating my cheese and bread while being serenaded by a medieval flutist playing ancient airs. He told me that at the end of his day at the castle he takes off his medieval costume and heads to a nearby pub where he plays in a rock band.
Just as I arrived at the train station a train arrived that I hadn’t been told to expect. It seems that since British Rail has been privatized the past couple years the once efficient system has been replaced by a multitude of regional carriers. These carriers can take their regional passengers anywhere in the country so they are passing through other regions all the time. The confusion comes when you walk into a regional station and ask about trains, they seem to give you information only about their own trains, ignoring the fact that several other train companies may also stop at that station. In this case a Virgin Rail train from Birmingham was on its way to my destination of Plymouth, so I got on it ten minutes before the scheduled train ... on which company I don’t remember ... arrived.
A half hour later I was in the huge Plymouth station. Plymouth was devastated by WW II bombing raids. As a result virtually the whole city has been since rebuilt. They used the opportunity to fully modernize the infrastructure. Modern feeder roads intersect just outside the station, but landscaped paths and well lit tunnels allow pedestrians easy passage onto the grand mall that stretches down to the sea front. A block wide and two miles long, it is one of the finest examples of its kind that I have ever seen and yet I had never heard of it. I’m not sure whether I was supposed to be biking on it or not, but its ramps and walks treading around fountains and flowers was a neat, fun trip.
The mall ends up at The Hoe, a large open space park on a hill top over looking Plymouth harbor. The young flew kites and chased frisbees while the old soaked up the sun. I joined the later to catch up on my diary and review my maps. As I did so often, I took the advise of those I visited with and modified my just made plans. Rather than stay in Plymouth I would cross over the bay to Cawsand (Coor’-sand).
No one didn’t mentioned that there was a direct ferry to Cawsand, opting instead to tell me about the ferry to Mount Edgcumbe, a restored mansion and grounds across the River Tamar. I waited for the twenty-minute ferry ride with a pretty young women who used it and a bus to commute daily from Cawsand to her job in Plymouth.
The tiny boat put me right at the gate to the grounds ... which were barred to bicycles. Rather than set out along along the forbidden waterfront paths, I took to the roads up behind the estate. (I now wish I had took the recommended water front route through the estate even though I imagine it would have been harder being off-road.) As I started up hill my bike again made the noises that had worried me back at Needles on the Isle of Wight. This time adjustments didn’t seem to do any good, but I had no choice other than push on and hope for the best.
A half-hour of riding later I crested a ridge to find Kingsand and Cawsand stepping down the harbor cliffs below me. Like Greek-isle villages, the two tiny towns cling to the steep, rocky slopes. Cars are left in lots above and guests and residents walk down steep paths into the towns.
At the foot of the path down from the Cawsand parking lot there was a bulletin board with advertisments posted including one for a B&B just up to the left. Arriving I found a sign in the window saying “Gone on vacation” ... at the height of tourist season ... gone on vacation. Yet that seemed to say much about the British B&B scene.
Bed and Breakfasts are sidelines. While they may bring in some extra money, no one seemed to be living off that income. One place I stayed at had added a bedroom to help pay for the plumbing upgrade which included a bath for the master suite. One lady said her B&B money was for Christmas while another saved it for quarterly shopping sprees. For others it was vacation money.
At the Carter farm the peak tourist season was at the same time as the busiest work time on the farm. Jackie said she wished people would come more in the winter when she had more time, but like several others she was glad to have company any time. In the end running a B&B seemed to be more about meeting people than making money. In only two places did I feel like anything less than a personal houseguest.
A couple doors down from the shuttered B&B I found Clarendon House. As I was knocking on the door a little boy came up and asked if I was looking for a room. It turns out he was the owner’s grandson, just trying to help out grandpa. Doreen and Don Goodwright made me feel welcome with offers of drinks and snacks. They had retired here from Wales and were really pleased with their new life. Five-year old Zach made himself a good host by helping me unpack.
Don tried to find me some tools to work on my bike. While he was looking, I realised that my front pack was pushing a cable down onto the front wheel causing the sound I had thought to be faulty bearings ...thank god it was something simple.
By the time I settled in and showered it was after 6:30. I walked down to the beach. It was a typical English beach with its rocks rather than sand but unique in that the rocks appeared to be from many different sources. I’m not into geology, yet I was able to identify of granite, marble and limestone. Even more interesting was the fact that these stones included every color imaginable. The wet stones were so pretty that I picked up several small ones to take home ... knowing full well I would have to peddle them up quite a few hills over the next week. (When I finally unpacked them, they were not nearly as pretty dry as they were wet. I tried to make them permanently wet by varnishing them but that failed ... oh well.)
From the beach I climbed up the narrow village paths, walking nearly every street in town in less than an hour. Along the way I found a group of people looking and pointing out to the Plymouth Bay. It seems they had spotted dolphins swimming in among the sailboats. They were so far away that they were nothing more than specks, yet I felt part of something because sightings here are somewhat rare ... I had no idea dolphins were ever in English waters.
Just as I was about to decide to go back to the furthest and highest restaurant, it began to rain. Since I was standing in front of a fish and chips shop, I just went into it. Even though there was no one else there, the two women behind the counter were reluctant to carry on a conversation because their boss had berated them for talking to customers ... now there is a man with a bad business sense.
The rain combined with the wind off Plymouth Bay made it too uncomfortable to be out walking any more so I went back to my room. I checked my maps, updated my diary, read the paper, and turned in early ... and slept like a rock.
The next morning the sun was peaking into the courtyard outside my window, welcoming me to a new day. Even though I was anxious to move on, I spent a long leisurely breakfast talking to a Dutch couple about our travel experiences. When it was time to go we exchanged addresses. Strangely the man, whose name I’ve forgotten, gave me not his address but the address of his women companion, Frieja.
I knew I would be starting up hill just to get to the parking lot up at the edge of town. As it turned out that was the smallest hill for the first hour or so. From Cawsand you go west up over a high ridge, losing sight of the sea until you get to the very top. There the views are spectacular. To the west along Whitsand Bay, a shallow indentation in the south coast, you can see for ten miles. My trip to Looe was clearly laid out ahead.
As I pedaled along, I was in heaven. The bright blue sea was to my left and the coastline stretched out ahead. Unfortunately all good things must come to an end ... and in this case I heard it coming. I was hearing what sounded like automatic weapon fire somewhere ahead. As the road suddenly turned away from the seaside I realised I was detouring around a military base. In a valley below was a firing range with soldiers pouring rounds of fire into a bunker on the shore ... if you ever are sailing around England you might want to be way, way off shore when you pass Whitsand Bay.
About ten miles into my day I was coasting down into Derrydown. It might be a nice place but with the tide out the town faced a “beach” of jagged black stone. A few miles further at Seaton, at least there was some sand in places. At the edge of Seaton I thought I was to turn on what appeared to be a narrow lane heading straight up a cliff. I asked directions and sure enough, it was upward I was supposed to go. It was the steepest mile I had climbed so far ... and I do mean climbed because I did virtually no pedaling for a mile.
At the top I was back on narrow farm lanes winding through sheep, cows and wheat. Again it had been worth the effort. The last couple miles into Looe I had to rejoin the traffic on a main road that plummeted down into the seaside towns of East Looe and West Looe. Stacked on either side of the river, they reminded me of Dartmouth, only it was much more crowded here. Rather than fight the crowds I choose to get on the train for an earlier connection on to Penzance.
The branch line running from Looe up to Liskeard was also recommended by Thoreaux ... if trees grow so close to the tracks that they slap the passing train, he recommends the train. While it was a nice trip, I saw precious little of the river up whose valley we were going.
At Liskeard (Lis-card) I had the most unpleasant experience on the whole trip. Near the end of my twenty-minute wait for the main line train, a railroad employee came down to track side and stood near where I was killing time looking at a posted schedule. I heard him say, “If he thinks he’s going to get on MY train, he’s crazy.” I looked around to see I was the only person on the platform with him. A couple minutes later when the train pulled in and I began to board, he stepped in front of me and asked if I had a reservation for my bike. I said “No. I didn’t know I needed one.” He replied ”You do and there’s no room on this train.” ... even though the train was obviously not full. I had to wait another fifty minutes for the next train. Strangely enough just before the next train arrived he again returned to the platform. This time he was overly friendly, inquiring how my journey was going and where I had been.
The hour and a half journey to Penzance ends with the train gliding along the shoreline into the city. It wasn’t as spectacular as the water at Exeter, but it was nice. Among the things I saw setting in the sea was my main objective at Penzance, the castle at St. Michael’s Mount.
St. Michael’s Mount is a huge rock about 300 yards off shore from the town of Mazalion, itself a nice tourist stop. I thought that I was going to have to be satisfied with seeing only the town and not the castle. The tide was in and the sandy walkway to the Mount was under water. I didn’t realise that there were boats running out there all the time ... and was surprised that they only cost a dollar. The trip over was fun because the wind was kicking up some waves and they constantly sprayed the boat and its passengers.
It wasn’t hard to imagine that the castle would have some great views from its lofty perch atop the shear rock walls. What impressed me was the fact that nothing had been done to make it easy for tourists to get around the island. The original paths covered with big rounded stones curled up to the castle’s doors. The steps were so steep and big that it was more like climbing than walking.
I kept thinking, “It’s a good thing that there is no Americans with Disabilities Act here forcing them to pave the stones over with ramps or making them add elevators up the cliff sides.” Here, and at other attractions in England, I saw people with canes, old people, and fat people making there way up and around sometimes difficult grounds with nary a whimper. It was nice to see people taking on the world as it is rather than expecting it to be changed to make their life easier.
I heard guides say that the castle is still lived in. I wondered both how you live in a castle and how you live in a tourist attraction. Answering those questions is a goal of mine. Maybe some day I can convince someone that I’m a writer and that will get in the door to find out the answers.
With the sea crashing around it, whether looking over to Mazalion, across the bay to Penzance, or out to sea, the views from St. Michael’s Mount are spectacular. As I soaked them in I thought how lucky I was to have repeatedly seen similar sites as I pedaled down the coast of England. I was really lucky that I wasn’t restricted to looking out a bus window waiting for places like this to come up on the itinerary.
As our small boat began the return journey to the mainland I could tell the tide was going out. I didn’t realize the extent that it had until we were dropped off ... on a sand bar 300 yards from the jetty from which we had left. The sand was wet but firm. It was kind of neat walking over land so recently under water.
The bike ride back to Penzance, even though dead flat, was one of those nightmare rides. It was into the teeth of a howling wind every pedal of the way. Of course on the way out I had known how hard the wind was pushing me as I had averaged nearly 20 miles per hour, twice my normal speed. The struggle wasn’t over once I entered town for it was rush hour and my destination was on the hill top overlooking the city.
Penzance was one of the towns for which I had the address of a hostel and a map of how to find it. Pedaling up the hill, I was quite happy to find it so quickly. When I presented my AYH card as I checked in, I was informed that the place wasn’t the hostel I sought but a YMCA hostel. It was cheap, clean, fairly new, and I was there ... what more could you ask for.
By then I was starving so unpacked the bike and took off back downtown. I coasted down hill the to the far end of the waterfront. I was really surprised how few people were out and about. As I headed back toward the heart of town I found a small restaurant overhanging the water. The menu intrigued me with “Southern Fried Chicken”. Of course I should have known better but I ordered it. Apparently “southern” referred to the south of England not the USA. It is amazing that the English can fry up their fish so crispy and yet not have a clue when it comes to chicken.
Back at the Y it was time for a refreshing shower. In that great YMCA tradition of penny pinching, the shower was fitted with several conservation devises, one of which kept me from getting any water without help from the staff. Once the water flowed, the hot water remained safely in a pipe too hot to touch which never released its contents on me. Cold showers may be invigorating on a hot Illinois summer evening but never in England.
I played my first game of pool in twenty years with a kid from Washington, D.C. who was the only American I was to meet on my trip. My skills must have bored him to death because he excused himself to go to bed at 9:30 ... actually he had just arrived in the U.K. that day so he really has tired. To kill some time I watched the British version of “Men Behaving Badly”. It was just as bad as its American imitator.
I guess it was a good thing that I too went to bed early for at some time well into the night we became in-person viewers of an episode of “Cops”. A girl had returned to our hallway fighting drunk. First she screamed at some guy for making a pass at her, then at her roommates for trying to quiet her down. Management quickly called the police which led to an even bigger row as they hauled her off. The next morning I learned that she and the boy had stolen wallets on them so they would be staying in cheaper accommodations for a while ... guests of the state so to speak.
The next day dawned bright and sunny and substituting a couple of jam donuts (jelly donuts) for the usual full English breakfast allowed me to get a much early start than normal. My disposition was even sunnier when the first hill turned out to be a very small one.
It was only three miles to Mousehole (Mow-zell) a small fishing village touted in all the guidebooks. I didn’t see too many B&Bs but it was definitely the kind of place that I rather stay in than in a city like Penzance. My guess is that the sea gulls would wake you at dawn much like a rooster does on a farm.
At the end of the high street a straight-up climb of one mile began ... followed by the usual fast downhill and long uphill ... and up and down and up and down. Two hours of this straight into a brisk, cool wind and now sunless sky got me to Land’s End.
In addition to the wind, the trip was made to seem longer by the strange road signs. About five minutes after seeing a sign saying two miles to Land’s End, I came upon another saying the same thing. 1.3 miles later a sign announced “One mile to Land’s End.” I began to wonder if Land’s End had broken away and was drifting further out to sea.
The first view of Land’s End is terribly disappointing. That’s because you can’t actually see it without going through a typical seaside arcade area. Only as you exit the arcade’s back door path do you see nature’s final punctuation point on the British Isles. The far southwest corner of England dies off into the sea in a diminishing series of rocks. Mist and fog added to the vision. It’s one of those places where you could sit and look for a long time but on this day a biting, cold wind was roaring in off the ocean dropping the temperature into the forties. Dressed for summer biking, and a bit sweaty at that, I was soon seeking shelter. I went into a building and sat on the stairs writing in my diary, hoping to warm up. Only when I got back on the road with the wind to my back did I again warm up.
It was about an hour on to St. Just, a pleasant village sort of in the middle of nowhere. About half way there I saw the sign pointing down a lane to the St. Just hostel. It sat well below the road but on a ridge still high above the sea ... a truly spectacular setting.
It was lunch time so I sat next to an obelisk in the middle of town eating my bread and cheese ... my lunch of choice on the road. An old man sat beside me telling me nothing in particular, although he ended with a recommendation ... go see Cape Cornwall.
It was about a mile and a half down to the shore at the base of Cape Cornwall. It was a hearty climb back up the rock promontory that is topped by a light house which from the distance looks more like a giant, round tomb stone. Even though the views were greatly restricted by the clouds and mist, it was a grand place ... which I would have missed if I hadn’t talked to the old guy in town.
On this day I think maybe the better view was back up the hill toward St. Just. It was a marvelous pattern of pastures and fields in the middle of which was a golf course which was rough enough as to be indistinguishable from the other fields. High on the ridge was a grand old mansion looking much like a haunted house as it sat there without a single scrub or tree near it.
When I went by it on the way back up hill it looked vacant. I climbed a fence to get a closer look. Peering through broken glass I saw indications that it may have at one time been converted to a hotel, but now it was home to squatters. I tried to no avail to enquire about it in town. In a forest setting it would have been an irresistible remodeling project. Sitting on the ridge overlooking Cape Cornwall it seemed a likely the set for a horror movie.
The first couple hills out of St. Just were manageable, but I was soon walking. On one of my walks I crossed paths with a girl from South Africa who was walking her way around Land’s End on a photo safari. She seemed really tired but, like me, saw it all as part of the experience.
Between walks there were thirty mile per hour down hills even with brakes full on. The steepest of these led into St. Ives, a highly touted destination in Cornwall. There were way too many people there for me. I pedaled on up and down through the cliff side town’s traffic for a hour till I got to Hayle. I had originally planned to take a train from St. Ives to Hayle to avoid the chaos. Why I didn’t do that, I can’t remember... it was one of the very few mistakes I made on the trip.
Hayle is a quiet town down at sea level near a big beach at Gwithian. I choose it not for the beach but because it had a laundromat ... my four changes of clothes were again in desperate need of attention. While the place I stayed seemed quite nice ... the only one with its own in-room TV ... it was the only place I stayed where the owner virtually never spoke to me. It was a young women with a bit to learn about the B&B trade. Supper was spoiled by a pub owner who voiced displeasure that ordered Coca Cola not beer with my meal ... and the night was spoiled by the world’s lumpiest mattress ... so I guess Hayle does make my four star list.
The flattest start of the trip, 1.6 miles, was countered with the disappointment of knowing that just over the huge sand dune to my left was a great beach that I couldn’t see. If you are wondering why I haven’t been in the water that lies along this ride, it is because the English sea is cold ... very cold. You have to be a masochist to enjoy it.
For the second day cloudy skies obscured the coastal views. What I saw was dramatic yet disappointing. I felt like I missed out on much along the Cornwall coast which had been my primary target of the trip. Most of the towns were down by the sea at places where streams poured into the ocean.
From Portreath it was up a valley to Bridge, then over several hills to St. Agnus. Near there I stopped to talk to an old couple with a roadside aviary full of singing birds and a barn full of cooing pigeons. I could understand why they would want to raise them. Surely the chirping of the birds soften the sounds of the howling winds on their lonely ridge top farm.
Above Perranporth was another cliffside hostel. Down in town a huge flat beach was overrun with people even though a slight mist filled the air. I too ignored it sitting on a bench eating lunch. Unfortunately I couldn’t ignore the birds overhead on a light pole who were crapping on my bike. It was rainfall, not crapfall, that ended my leisurely lunch. With no place to seek shelter, I put on my rainsuit, pulled down the beak of my helmet, and took off up hill ... only to be walking five minutes later. By the time I reached the top of the hill it had quit raining. One worry was traded for another for I was now on the busiest highway I had been on during the whole trip. Cars still gave me a wide birth but traveling 60 or 70 miles per hours they shook me in their wake.
By two o’clock I arrived in Newquay (New-key), looking forward to the town. It too was overrun with tourists who in this case all seemed to be under twenty years old. Add teenagers to wind and rain and you don’t have the formula for fun. By the time I decided that I didn’t want to say there I had twenty minutes to get across town to the only train for the next two hours. I darted recklessly in and out of fierce traffic getting to the station just in time ... just in time to worry whether there was room for me and my bike on the two car train. I got the last seat while two kids had to stand with their bikes for the one-hour journey to Plymouth where I changed for Exeter.
Apparently kids who live between Plymouth and Newquay frequently hop unescorted on the train for day trips to the coast. I talked a little soccer with some of them. That was followed by a conversation with a lonely rich kid who seemed to wandering all over the country during his summer break financed by parents who didn’t want him around.
Happily going into Exeter required again traversing that lovely stretch of track along side the River Ex. It was a comforting end to nine hours on bike and rail.
Once in Exeter it took a half hour to find a B&B. I never found any of the places to which I was directed, but I happened upon a fairly new house with a sign in the driveway. It was the most modern and most expensive (£22) B&B I stayed in ... but not the best.
It wasn’t far from the city center which was very London-like. Exeter’s only saving grace was the truly great cathedral, maybe England’s finest after St. Paul’s. I didn’t get to stay long due to a pending evening service, but I enjoyed every minute there. I hadn’t seen any interesting places to eat along the way so I used up my full trip’s allotment of one hamburger to eat at Burger King ... and I thoroughly enjoyed every sinful moment.
I began the next day with breakfast in Greece ... the Track and Field World Championships were on TV from Athens. Since I’m a track nut, seeing heats of the women’s 1500 at 7:30 in the morning was a rare treat ... in the States we only get six or eight hours coverage of the whole eight days while in Britain you get eight hours a day. I didn’t get to watch long because I had to catch an 8:30 train.
On the train ride north I visited with a couple planning to do the nearly the same thing I was. They had their bikes and their dogs and were headed for the Tarka Trail for a day of biking. While they were going to ride out and back from Barnstaple, I was going to get off at Umberliegh and ride across to Greater Torrington to pick up the southern end of the trail. It was a pleasant hour up to Umberliegh.
The eight-mile stretch across to Torrington might have been the toughest on the trip ... or maybe it was fatigue from the previous two forty-plus mile days. Going down one long straight hill in the middle I registered 38 miles per hour even though my breaks were screaming from the effort of trying to keep the speed under control. With twenty or so pounds of packs hanging here and there off my bike that is a very fast speed. Thank goodness the English roads are basically smooth ... you really never have to worry about a pothole. Less than a minute up the other side and I was walking ... no amount of momentum can carry you up these steep hills. I took a picture at the top but of course it didn’t show the true height of the hills. My friends have looked at the picture and given me that “So??” look.
Apparently not too many people start this ride in Torrington because the city provide no signs to direct visitors to the trail head which was a mile beyond the city. Because Torrington sat atop a hill, it was separated from its train station which was down in a valley coming up from the sea. The Tarka Trail is an old disused (abandoned) railroad right-of-way that runs seventeen miles between Greater Torrington and Barnstaple. It is packed white gravel, an excellent riding surface.
At the trailhead I stopped for a rest, talking with an older couple who frequently took advantage of the trail network being developed in the area. They told me that there was a newly opened trail on the other side of Barnstaple which would carry me in the direction I wanted to go that day.
Soon after I began I ran into the first of many families riding the trail. They took my picture for me. It wasn’t long before I ran into the couple from the train. In the time it had taken me to struggle across the hills and find the trail, they had ridden the train on in to Barnstaple and pedaled twelve of so miles out the trail. In retrospect, I think I would recommend out and back on the trail rather than what I did.
|ON THE TARKA TRAIL|
The trail follows a river ... the Torridge I think ... from Torrington down to the sea at Barnstaple. At Torrington it is thirty feet wide and swift moving. It widens and slows all the way down. Well before Barnstaple it becomes a tidal estuary.
The day had started off sunny but just as I hit the trail it drizzled for a few minutes. It has still dreary when I got to the half way point at Bideford. At the old station there you can get off the trail directly onto a bridge across the river and on to the high street.
I had a terrific lunch of steak and kidney pie and jam donuts hot from the oven of a bakery. I sat on a bench out front and watched the city move by ... and answered numerous questions presented by the town eccentric who professed his love for everything American.
Back on the trail the sun finally came out again and the rest of the day was perfect English summer weather. As the river widen it presented a whole new set of views. One of the more interesting came looking across to Appledore where a small freighter which was in port had been left high and dry out of the water when the tide went out. You would have though the boat would have fallen over but there it sat while crews continued to unload it.
While there were birds along the way there certainly weren’t as many as I had been led to believe. I’ll bet there were as many dogs as birds. The Tarka Trail certainly attracted a multitude to the great outdoors.
Barnstaple was a bit of a disappointment in that it seemed to be a thoroughly ordinary city. The discovery of quaint villages in the countryside was the idea of the trip, not passing through perfectly nice modern cities. When you get off the Tarka Trail you are right at the present rail station where decorated walks and signs direct you to the heart of the city. Once there, a single sign directs you on toward the new trail on the other side of town ... but there is no other sign. Soon you find yourself in an industrial park looking at chain link fences blocking your way over to a line of trees that must surely be the railroad right-of-way.
I eventually got on the trail by crossing a ditch and climbing an embankment. Before I could get my riding rhythm, it ended ... in a tiny neighborhood at the edge of town. At least I had avoided leaving town on the main road. An old man on a bike told me how to further avoid the main road for a couple miles. I tried to confirm his rather shaky directions with a man pushing a baby carriage. He couldn’t help me, but I helped him by offering sun screen for his tiny, red-faced child. As we talked the man told me about having twice biked in Israel ... maybe that can be a future trip.
I was soon in a marshey lowland of sheep and crops. As the couple miles stretched out, I began to feel lost. A very old lady on an even older bike told me I had missed my turn three miles back. It was the most lost I was ever to be on the whole trip. When I got to the main road I appeared to be no more than a mile or two from where the trail had ended. The countryside had been pretty but thirty miles into that day, wandering around had not been one of my priorities.
Over the next twenty-four hours I would come to realize why the road was so busy. I was heading out to the west end of the Devon coast which it turns out has more holiday parks than the more famous north coast. At Saunton there was one of the most spectacular beaches I had ever seen. With the tide partially out it was perhaps a quarter mile wide and five miles long. Rows of small waves were being ridden by aspiring surfers and hundreds or maybe thousands soaked up the sun. I viewed it from a very nice small hotel on the cliff above the beach’s west end. At $40 it had to be a terrific bargain but it was full. I was really disappointed because by now I was really tired and ready to stop.
What followed was my longest search for a place to stay. The next hour or so of hills were full of no vacancy signs. By the time I got to Croyde I was getting a bit concerned, especially when I found its many facilities all full. For the first time the fact that I was traveling during the British high season had become the problem I had feared it might be. Dispirited, I began pumping up the hill out of Croyde only to sight a tiny hand written sign among the vines on a cottage gate.
Nestled on the hillside was a 400 year old plaster and stone cottage set in a picturesque garden of flowers and vegetables. Appropriately named “The Cottage”, it was the home of Tom and Doris McCullum, the last of a family who had long owned the structure.
I had to duck to get through the front door and again to get into the lounge (living room) where a big fireplace dominated the clusters of antique furniture. Overworn and overstuffed chairs faced a 25” TV ... oh, well. My room was up a narrow, rickety stair. Tom and Doris exiled themselves for the night to shed like structure in their garden to give their guests privacy on the three bedroom second floor of their home.
Even though I was still dead tired even after watching two hours of track on TV, I rode back down to the beach hoping to see a sunset over the ocean. By then clouds had rolled in and the big beach took on somewhat dark mood.
Coming back the sandy trail from the beach I turned off into a holiday park. In England that means an RV camp ground. Row after row of caravans (RVs) were parked hubcap to hubcap. It seemed that the guy in one trailer or tent would be sleeping closer to the wife of the guy in the next trailer than he would to his own wife if he were back home. How anyone could think of this as getting away, I’ll never know.
I worked my way up a couple aisles ... they were way too narrow to qualify as streets or even lanes ... only to find myself across the road from an even bigger section of camp grounds and a fully modern shopping center the likes of which is still rare in Great Britain. It seemed hundreds of kids were milling around looking to meet someone. I picked up some soup and fruit and went back to The Cottage to eat.
Tom and Doris were heading out to the pub for an evening of dancing. Even though their pub was overrun by tourists in the summer, the local old-timers refused to give up their traditional Saturday night. There was something warm about the thought that these seventy year olds had to get in their night of dancing no matter what.
It was the quietest night of the trip even though the cottage sat right on the main hill out of town. My sleep was spoiled only by the sound of rain on the roof and the knowledge that my bike had been left outside for the first time on the trip.
|THE COTTAGE B&B IN CROYDE|
Five miles up hill in the rain and it was time for another break. This time I stopped at a farm supply store which was in a big barn which afforded me shelter from the elements. After a while a women came over from the nearby house and talked to me a long while. I don’t know if she was guarding their merchandise or just trying to kill time while waiting to ride her horse which was stabled there. After a half hour I decided to push onward. Quickly I was on a main road into Ilfracombe coasting down in the spray of the traffic ... not a safe feeling.
Ilfracombe was a very busy harbor town. People were on vacation and no amount of rain was going to keep them indoors. I checked out the town center and picked up some groceries for lunch. I had pushed on twelve miles in the rain because I knew there was a hostel there. I found it on the far side of town, but I found it was locked until five ... that’s often the case with hostels. I ate lunch in an out-of-the-wind corner of their porch and then moved on.
The few B&Bs I had seen were full, but a mile out of town I finally found one with available rooms ... and a TV in the lounge where I could spend the afternoon watching the World Championships track meet. I began my stay with a long hot shower in a failed attempt to bring my body temperature back up to normal.
My only regret about spending the rest of the day in front of a TV was that, as in the States, the track telecast kept getting interrupted by other sporting events like an equestrian show and a grand prix car race. The magazines that could have entertained me during these unwanted interludes were so old they must have been thrown out of doctor’s offices.
I did get a little company from a family whose leaky tent forced them out of their holiday park. By five o’clock the rain became intermittent but never really stopped till morning.
Supper would be fish and chips for the forth time on the trip. I didn’t consider that a problem because I love English fish and chips ... huge pieces of extra crispy fish and mounds of chips (french fries) wrapped in newspaper to absorb the grease. It is always a nearly all-you-can-eat helping at the cheapest price of any eat-out food. The American imitators always come up short.
I had breakfast with the rained out family and hit the drying road by nine. The first hill began at the door of the B&B and rose two miles into the mist. The darkened skies cast a deep shade of green over the surrounding pastures. It was a really pretty ride for such a gloomy day. Down hill into Coombe Martin was followed by a four-mile climb out.
At the intersection with the main Lynton-Bristol road there was a rest stop. When I came out of the toilet, it was raining again. As I waited, a car stop to use the facilities. I asked the driver if he could stick my bike in the boot (trunk) and give me a lift into Lynton and he surprised me by saying yes. It was a young couple taking their grandmother on a day trip. We had an enjoyable visit during the ten mile drive into town.
Amazingly it stopped raining just as we got there. We pulled into the first available parking space in town. There never seems to be any municipal parking lots in these resort towns.
My brother had told me to be sure to see Lynton. He had made it sound like a tiny village so I was surprised when I had to ride a long way to get to heart of the town on the edge of the cliff over Lynmouth. It must have been along walk for the grandmother.
Except for the single street entrance into town, Lynton is all set up for tourists. They have a big city tourist information office in 1800s municipal building, plenty of B&Bs, all nationalities of restaurants, and lots of souvenir shops and arcades. Best of all they have the cable cars running at a 45 degree angle down the cliff face to the tiny village of Lynmouth on the waterfront below.
Lynmouth is a perfectly staged place to visit beginning with the dramatic decent down the tram’s tracks. At the bottom you walk straight on to the “beach”. The quote marks are appropriate because, with the tide out, the beach is a moonscape of huge black boulders, two or three hundred yards wide. It’s as though the Lyn River had recently dislodged them all from its deep cut through the cliff. You don’t walk to the water’s edge; you cautiously leap from stone to stone.
The rest of Lynmouth consists of a single street of high-range shops and eateries. Even on a dreary day it was a nice place to be. Back up in Lynton I sat on the grand staircase inside the tourist information center and ate my lunch and caught up on my diary while watching the tide of tourists go in and out.
To leave town I headed back the way I had came, looking for the turn which would carry me across the top of the cliff and onward. When I ended up all the way back where I had started without finding the turn, I broke down and ask directions. The answer came as a bit of a shock. To travel eastward along the Devon coast I would have to go down the cliff road into Lynmouth and then back up again on a road that I had seen from below clinging to another cliff.
I had no concept of steep before now. I may have clung on the breaks going down or pushed resolutely up before but never on hills like these. Going down was somewhat like walking down the roof of a house ... for a winding mile. Going up the other side, I was able to ride no more than a hundred yards at a time, four or five times in 1.6 miles. A guy my age was trying to ride all the way up if you can call pumping a hundred feet, stopping, standing, and repeating, actually riding all the way up.
Mist rolling in off the sea and the wind made it very cold, yet sweat rolled down my back under my rainsuit ... and I didn’t complain once. The views were unbelievable. Every curve yielded a different view of Lynmouth slipping away below. When I finally got to the top I asked Dutch couple to take my picture with the hill stepping down behind. It is my one hill picture in which you really can tell how steep the hill is.
The triumph of reaching the top was dampened ... by rain. No sooner than I put my camera away, the rains returned. If I had only known ...
For the next 11.4 miles I pedaled and walked up hill. It wasn’t terribly steep but it was never down ... and less than a half mile was anywhere nearly flat. The rain intensified to a steady downpour ... water streamed down my face and sweat down my back as my waterproof Gore-tex rain suit kept the rain out and the heat in. There was no town, tree or barn for shelter ... I was in the middle of nowhere.
And yet for the next hour and a half it wasn’t the hills or the rain that knocked down my will to continue ... it was an unrelenting twenty to thirty mile per hour head wind. The road curved, I went up hills, behind ridges, and everywhere the wind was straight into my face. My mind fixated on the phrase “howling in the wind” ... and soon I was. I was screaming out “Why me?” The sheep looked at me like I was crazy ... where did they get that idea?
I gave up and stuck out my thumb at every passing car. Apparently the idea of picking up a drowned rat didn’t appeal to anyone. The only car to stop was a mini-car stuffed full of a German family of four with luggage strapped to the roof ... at least they cared enough to inquire if I was well.
At the end of the climb at one of the highest points on the north coast my guide book told of spectacular views across the sea to Wales. As I looked to my left toward Wales I could just barely make out a fence through the fog. I could hear sheep bleating but not see them. The rain had stopped but the wind could not blow away the fog.
I was at the top of the famous Portlock Hill. Two hours of climbing would be wiped out in the next 1.6 miles. The sign said 1:6 grade. That means a one foot of fall in every six feet. If I’d have kept off my breaks I might have gone fifty or sixty miles an hour ... which I’d be to chicken to do no matter what the conditions ... but with the road damp and curving and the fog now clearing but still there, I squeezed tightly on the brakes. The further I dropped the less I liked it ... and then there was a sign warning 1:4. That’s as steep as the roof on my house ... the one the insurance company had given me a “Dangerous roof premium” to repair. Just as my heart was nearing my throat, there was a car ahead being pried off off the rocks where it had come to rest after missing a switchback curve. I slid to a stop and walked around the curve which dropped like a corkscrew onto a normal slope down into Porlock.
Porlock seemed like a nice place but by then all my sense of adventure had been drained away. I just wanted to get the trip over with. I was determined to push on to Minehead where I could connect with a train back to London. I rested a bit in the showroom of an auto dealer where the salesman assured me that, once I got up the monster hill just outside his door, while there were still a few hills to go, they weren’t too bad. He was right. I only stopped once after walking all the way up the one out of town.
‘The weather constantly cleared and the last hour became like the final straight in a race ... I kept telling myself “You’ve done all the work; now enjoy the finish straight.” As in a race, I was proud of the effort that had brought me to that point.
I also marveled at the fact that through all the rain and fog, I had never once felt threatened by cars on the road. The respect that the drivers showed cyclists constantly amazed me. The British really are a civilized people. It kind of brings home a philosophy by which I was raised ... “You never know by which of your actions you will be judged.”
Minehead seemed a fitting end to my journey. It was kind of like “back to civilization.” It is a seaside resort which seems more interested in itself than the tourists. The high street shops were there to fulfill daily needs not Aunt Bea’s souvenir list.
I just missed the train by ten minutes but I didn’t care. If I had caught it I wouldn’t have gotten into London till nine or ten o’clock. I was way too tired to deal with that.
I found Luciano’s B&B run by an Italian couple whose motto apparently was “I’m not going to let those damn tourists spoil my life.” I took a long hot bath ... for which they charged extra ... and settled down in front of the TV to watch the track meet coverage and burn some of their precious electricity.
About seven o’clock a German family joined me in the lounge for an enjoyable two and a half hours of conversation. Joseph and Gabi had just begun to speak English again for the first time since school in order to help their twelve-year old daughter Janine learn the language. Janine spook English better than our local high school students speak Spanish in their third year classes which I have taught. Joseph was a TV-VCR repairman in Beckum. It was a trade he learned in school ... another difference in the educational process there.
A great night’s sleep ended with the sound of thunder the next morning. It was pouring rain when I made my way four blocks to the station of the West Somerset Steam Railroad for my trip over to the main line at Taunton.
The British have a fascination with steam train which I just don’t understand. To me it is hard to tell what is pulling the train. The only way you know is by sticking your head out the window on a big turn. In this case the cars where a bit older, but that only means more interesting, not more comfortable.
I guess the real draw must be that these trains ply remote section of track, often in scenic side valleys, at a pace at which you can enjoy the view for more than a few seconds at a time. This train crept through rail yards full of strange looking cars and past herds of sheep slowly enough not to frighten them.
Throughout the rail portions of my trip I found it much harder to take in the countryside. Trains move so fast that you barely notice interesting features let alone have time to absorb them. All too often the tracks are lined by hedgerows which obscure the views. Worse yet the train often glides along in the bottom of a ditch. There were great moments, like along the river south of Exeter, but on the whole, I’d rather be the passenger in a car or bus. In truth what glories the train may have presented paled beside the experiences of being right out there in the middle of nature on my bike.
The hour and 25-minute ride ended, not at Taunton station, but in tiny Bishop’s Lydeard where a bus ride completed the journey for all but we two bikers. As we detrained I met Jamie Wright, a London teenager who was also ending a tour of Devon. We set out together for town, but he soon out distanced me. I didn’t mind because I was just too tired to push faster. I knew he was worried about making the connection for London. I’d have done the same to him if I thought staying with him would have caused me to miss a train.
No sooner had he disappeared from view than I realized I was lost. I had gotten off the wrong side of a roundabout and ended up in an industrial park. As I raced toward the station I kind of panicked as it began once again to rain . Luckily the train was late so I had time to compose myself and put on a dry shirt before it arrived.
The ride into London was anticlimactic ... I was glad for Jamie’s company. Stepping onto the platform at Paddington Station was a slap in the face ... a reality check.
A couple blocks through traffic and I was in Hyde Park. Part of me wanted to stop and soak it in but I had been there before and now it was time to get home. From Hyde Park to Victoria Station is the busiest traffic area in all of London. I had no business being on my bike in the streets there. No matter how courteous a driver might tend to be, the congestion made survival, not manners, the priority. Three minutes after arriving at Victoria my train pulled out for Cheam. Forty five minutes later I was back “home” with my friends Judy and John in their suburban Surrey house.
As I reflect back on the trip I can do nothing less than suggest that everyone try a similar trip for theirselves. The hills were very hard, but they were easy enough to walk up. I got tired every day, but mostly that was because I kept pushing the pace in order to cover way to much ground in the time I allowed. Every Brit I talked to thought I was crazy trying to cover the whole of the south and west coasts in just twelve days ... and I was. Picking any half of it would be hard enough.
As an athlete I was on both a vacation and a challenge simultaneously. Surprisingly even to me, while I went to bed exhausted every night, I never woke up sore or stiff ... though some days I woke up still tired. To be honest I suppose one would have to be in great shape to undertake this kind of trip, but some little parts would be very doable to anyone.
I could recommend several simple trips to very nice places ... whether by bike, car, or train ... whether to stay in one place or see a couple places. I may some day go back and do some of the places at a more leisurely rate myself.
There is no part of the trip that I regret doing. I wish the weather could have been clearer along some parts of the coast, but on the whole, I couldn’t have hoped for weather this good in England. Even that last terrible day from Lynmouth to Porlock is not a memory to be forgotten but rather cherished ... a once in a lifetime experience.
17,840 words written in September and November, 1997,
about travel in July and August, 1997, by:
Bob Hyten, Jr.
1025 Randle St.