Heading Back to Blighty
As we sat on the ferry from Cherbourg to Poole, for the first time we could remember, we were surrounded by people speaking our native tongue. This had an unexpected downside…we could clearly understand what was being said. We were treated to a particularly long soliloquy from a nearby woman with a large voice. In four hours I didn't hear any contributions from anyone else in her party.
As she pontificated, and treated all within earshot to her wisdom, I felt a sense of foreboding. We were graduating from a culture of polite and courteous cordiality, to something entirely different. Although surrounded by people trying to sleep, the most important thing for her was saying what she had to say. Some of her opinions, I struggled with; I caught myself hovering dangerously close to judgement. I mentally thanked her for the lesson in tolerance, and tried to finish my book.
After far too little sleep, we had jobs to do, supplies to buy, and haircuts to endure. In the town itself, we visited a shopping centre. We were both immediately taken aback by what we saw and heard. Over the past couple of months, we had exchanged many greetings and polite exchanges, the “boulangerie bonjour madame, monsieur”… the “desayuno - Buenos dias” etc.
Within a few minutes, we had seen two people who clearly had some mental health issues, alone and distressed; uncared for. In passing, I smiled at another man and said hello…I was greeted with no response. There was a feeling of tension, as if everybody was expecting something unpleasant to happen. Annette saw an ugly altercation between two people that was cranked up by each party, both of them sure they had been unjustly wronged. Luckily it was a pantomime of posturing that ended as suddenly as it began.
We saw teenagers shouting in each other’s faces, and decided to call it a day. We went back to the hotel instead of exploring further. Instead of going out to eat, we stayed in. The atmosphere was too tense, and we were too tired.
It’s not my intention to trash Poole; we know nothing about the place. But we felt ambushed. Over the couple of months of our journey, we have just not experienced this tension before, and we were taken by surprise. We couldn't wait to leave. There were not enough smiles for us, this day, in Poole.
When we talked about it, we reflected on Brexit and the decision to leave the EU, the biggest trading bloc in the world. Our feelings were that England never really has embraced Europe, it’s just too different. Like a grudging teenager who doesn't appreciate all that his parents do for him. I think perhaps England deserves Brexit.
This of course is just first impressions, in a few days, we will have met lots of people, and things will feel different…I hope.
I lay awake thinking about all of this, how our feelings, and expectations have travelled with us over thousands of kilometres. About how our experiences have not been empirical or measurable, but just tiny dramas, viewed through the lenses of our perceptions and our interpretations. I thought about how some of the funniest moments perhaps weren’t funny at all.
I hope we get to laugh more as we travel through England.
Poole to Westbury 74 km
We set off from Poole like two burglars. We had pillaged the breakfast buffet, and ate until people started to queue at empty servers. If they had only looked, the bacon and sausage servers were untouched, the beans were long gone, and already part-digested!
It was a cold and dry morning, and traffic was heavy…where were they all going on a Saturday morning? At weekends in Spain, we could go hours before seeing another human. In France there were a few more cars on the road, but they were only going to the boulangerie.
The volume of traffic was a shock, as was riding on the wrong side of the road, having our mirrors on the wrong side, and constantly trying to convert miles to kilometres. All in all, it was a bit like having a stone in your shoe, irritating in the back of your head. It gave my mind a limp.
There were no tabacs, no cafes, no brasseries, and most importantly no coffee or shelter from the cold. We eventually found a KFC at a random garage where we managed a short break from the icy wind.
The “coffee” at the KFC was not unpleasant, nor was it coffee. What it was - was warm and wet.
As Annette made use of the bathroom, I chuckled inside as I thought of the faces French, or Italian people might pull if you tricked them into drinking this, and I thought of the ensuing outrage. Madame Guillotine drifted into my thoughts.
I am being ungracious…as I said - it was warm and wet
After our break, we headed into some of our steepest and most brutal hills to date. We inconvenienced impatient car drivers as we toiled up hills, and inconvenienced them again as we careered down steeper hills, forearms straining to pull worn out brakes.
The thing that was most difficult to get used to, was the sheer volume of traffic. We were not used to it and as conversation was impossible, due to the noise, we cycled solo, together, two small groups of one.
We eventually pulled in to our berth for the night, in the dark, and cold enough to melt all over the wonderful under-floor heating. After listening to the football on the radio, we went out for a curry (a tick-list item since Tanzania). The curry was ok, the day had been ok, we were hoping for a little more for tomorrow.
Westbury to Chepstow 79 km
We made our breakfast this morning before our hosts had got out of bed. It was nice to have a kitchen and we made full use of it.
As we set out, it was bitterly cold, but we were all set for the day. We cruised, on flat roads to our first point of reference; Bradford on Avon. As we fiddled through town, we got a wee surprise. We dropped down to cross the river and found ourselves on a seriously steep hill.
I toiled and toiled, and simply couldn't drag my bike up the hill. For the first time on the trip, I was forced to get off, and watched as Annette disappeared up the hill. Beware Bradford on Avon, cyclists!
Eventually, we found ourselves on a canal path that was just mud, water, and more mud. It was horrible. We popped out at Bath, and cruised through picturesque streets until we managed to fiddle our way onto a cycle path to Bristol. Just before the cycle path, I very nearly crashed my bike as I skidded on a huge dollop of dogshit. I decided that this was the low point of my trip. As I sat on a wet bench, in the mud, eating a sandwich, I told myself I was hating this.
As we cycled along after lunch, I decided I’d better start telling myself something different; that it was all really ok. Otherwise I was going to have a very dire afternoon. Well, I told myself it wasn't too bad… and I was right.
I started to enjoy the afternoon.
Before too long the Severn Bridge into Wales was either getting bigger, or closer. We discovered it was the latter, and before too long we entered Wales…in the dark. We had cheap and wonderful accommodation at the George Hotel in Chepstow, and the rest is all about food and/or drink.
Our second day cycling in England proved to us once and for all what unreliable things generalisations are. Today we met the most unpleasant people in 5,000 kms of riding. I had a very funny moment where a guy at a railway station was shouting at me to move my bike, every time I tried to ask him where I should move it to, he shouted at me again, I would try to ask again, he would shout over me again “move the bike NOW!” I was sure someone was filming it for YouTube. He got angrier and angrier, and before I was completely covered in his spit, I walked away, pushing my bike, wondering why he was so unhappy. Although it was funny, I was concerned or him, I think he may have actually been a nice guy.
Another time Annette was confused about where to stop and she was on the wrong side of the cycle path, another cyclist came up fast and as he approached, she apologised for being in the path. Apology refused, the guy shouted at her in pure Anglo-Saxon, she replied likewise. Not helpful, but again pretty funny!
The final serious abuse of the day was when a car pulled up alongside and wound the window down to shout at me to get off the road…and some other stuff. There were of course some minor road rage incidents, one even in Wales!
We have encountered this nowhere on our route. In Spain in particular, and in Tanzania to a lesser extent, people would stop their cars to let us pass. On a couple of occasions, cars stopped to give us advice about best routes. We were flagged down to give us directions when we were obviously off track. Cars stopped to ask us if we needed help when we had punctures.
England…you really don't like cyclists do you!
On a more positive note, we had many conversations today with nice people. We met an old gent who had lived in Mulange and Satemwa in Malawi, before he retired in the 1990s. We met some nice folk on bikes, and an interesting couple on a tandem.
In a pub, there was a guy who shall we say was different. He was a big guy and obviously a character. I would not feel ashamed at being a little wary of him. The barman and him had some chat and he left the pub. It was a lovely moment; the barman said he was well known and often came in. He was part of the local community. He looked cared for.
The final score…Unpleasant people 5 – 8 friendly folk. The friendly folk edge it!
Well there you go! Let’s see what tomorrow brings.
Chepstow to Ludlow 95 km
This was a day that only its mother could love. It started off well enough with a top-notch breakfast in The George. But 5 minutes later, the bikes were in bits. I fixed Annette’s brakes, and moved on to checking all of the tyres, my front one was low, and so I put a few pumps of air in it. As I pulled the pump off, the whole valve blew out. This was a new one for me.
On these bikes a front wheel puncture is more fiddly than a rear wheel, so that took a while, and meant we were down to our last decent spare tube. Once I’d got everything back together again, including the brakes, we’d lost about 45 minutes; at this time of year – not good. Annette had picked out a quieter route last night and after a long pull straight up out of the hotel, we had a lovely hilly ride through the Wye Valley. At Monmouth was where the plan came slightly adrift.
We climbed out of the back of Monmouth onto a lovely quiet road. Almost straight away, it climbed steeply out into the hills, and it just kept climbing…steeply. I wasn't dressed, or ready for this sort of work, and had a short tantrum. The first hill took us an hour. That’s an hour of crawling. We just kept on going up steep hills, and down sometimes even steeper ones. It was clear that we were losing time, and after our late start, it started to be a concern.
Despite this, the biking was good. Annette had absolutely chosen the right route, but the hills were a surprise that we hadn’t built in to the plan.
By the time we arrived in Hereford, we knew we were going to be cycling on a busy road in the dark. Despite our best efforts, and a blistering pace (for us at least), we ended up on the A49, in the dark, and winning no popularity contests with the motorists. Annette’s front light stopped working and we limped into the Travelodge, with eyes like the proverbial “robber’s horse.”
There was a lovely duty manager in the Travelodge, and we dumped the bikes, and were treated to beers and food by Annette’s dad, who travelled a couple of hours to visit. We had a lazy, but great evening, and retired to bed with lessons hard learned.
Ludlow to Whitchurch 88 km
If yesterday was a day hard to like, this day was a day impossible not to like. We decided to do our exploring early, and were prepared to bale onto the fast road if time was an issue. It was a good plan.
We set off following Google maps on a magical mystery tour, through housing estates, into an icy but sunny morning. It was delightful. As we bimbled down country lanes, we stumbled upon a random bike shop, where we bought tubes, and borrowed his log-burning stove for a wee while.
Google maps then took us on what I could only describe as a hilly, muddy, ribbon of gravel and shite. The road was appalling, tiny, and incredibly steep and hilly. There were several brutal climbs that we only just made. It was beautiful though, and sort of fun!
At one stage I felt that this was real adventure, the road was slimy, steep, and if any vehicles appeared around the hedgerows, it would be thrilling!
We popped out on a luxurious “B” road; a road that could probably fit as many as two cars on. Google maps instructed us to turn left. It was a monster that couldn't be ridden (by us at least), and the thought of pushing the bike up that, only seconds after stuffing my lungs back inside my chest after the last hill, was a hill too far. We decided to stay with the B road to Much Wenlock, which had a wee surprise of a hill on exit, but at least it had 2 lanes...
We had lost just enough time to give us a kick up the behind, and it was time to make ground by regaining the A roads. We cruised through hills and dales, before entering the racetrack again at Shrewsbury, for a fast 30km into Whitchurch.
This was by far the hilliest, steepest, lung-bursting day of the trip so far, and I felt compelled to order two meals at the local fish and chip shop. I was starving and ate them both without breathing. They were washed down with a couple of steaming mugs of tea.
After a great day’s biking, it doesn't get any better than this!