Saturday, 29 April 2017

les miserables

We don't really have the time to give Belgium it's due.  Our objective is Koln in five days' time, which does not seem like much, but as the man who chats to me outside a shop points out, the wind can increase your journey time by a third, if it's in the wrong direction.  As all cycle-tourers know, the wind is in the wrong direction about 90% of the time.
a Belgian restaurant

The country is friendly to cyclists, even if it's not a friendly country.  There are cycle paths along most roads - usually sharing the little used pavement.  Plenty of cyclists and plenty of options.  An easy one is to get onto a canalside and motor.  Quite literally, as we share the bike paths with scooters, mopeds and e-bikes.  It comes as quite a shock on our first evening to find blue-rinsed old ladies breezing past us with their shopping baskets full.  Are we so unfit?   The farmland is wide open and flat, flat, flat.  You can see for acres, and there's ne'er a hedgerow or tree in sight.  We pass through a lovely old town with the distinctive bell tower separate from the church steeple.  It is just after five o'clock and everything seems shut.  The streets are almost deserted.  We've just arrived in the middle of a zombie movie.   A bit later we stop at a picnic table near a village to eat.  Dog-walkers, runners and cyclists pass by without once giving us eye-contact, let alone a 'bon appetit'.  It's enough to make you paranoid.  
another Belgian restaurant

We make it to Bruges the next lunchtime, and push our bikes through the narrow streets full of tourists, emerging in the main square.   It's very pretty, very touristy.  The buildings seem to lean towards each other over the cobbles, as if to confide with each other.  At street level everything seems business as usual - same old same old shops.  We are passing through, we have no time - the city deserves better from us.  On the way out through the more modern and plain back streets we are struck by the number of bikes parked on the streets, without locks, clearly left outside the houses for want of space inside. Everyone here cycles, it seems.

We much prefer Ghent to Bruges.  Is it because the wider canals and streets give us more to see, more to look at?  Less tourists? Or is it because we arrive mid-morning and spend more time walking around?  The canals and old merchant buildings in the centre are impressive, and the scale and size of the enormous medieval churches leave your neck sore and your jaw aching.  Ghent was known as the Manchester of Europe because it was the first city on the continent to start a mechanised weaving industry. Other than this, there are no similarities whatsoever.  We cycle over huge junctions of locks where the canals connect with the port - a canal leads out to the sea.
Belgian gothic

Oh but we are sick of the dour Belgians already.  Terse, unsmiling.  Cyclists we pass don't let on.  No smiles, or waves, or acknowledgements.  Of course, we are not special or unique in a land full of cyclists, but we are used to saying hello to people.  In the evening we stop to get water in a village and the only place is a bar full only of men, apart from the woman serving behind the bar.  When I walk in the conversations actually stop and everyone listens to what I ask for.  It's a scene from a Trappist Western.  
the only trouble with canal side bike paths...
After a few flat days we finally come to hills as we approach Maastricht and the Dutch and German borders.  We begin to enjoy the cycling again because now we have views.  The Belgian villages have all become strung out as new houses are built along all the approach roads.  This makes the scenery quite boring  - nothing beats the greens of farms and countryside.  So being in the hills is a pleasant variation to this.  We are looking forward to Germany.
typical village house in Belgium - note the use of a moat to keep the neighbours out

Thursday, 27 April 2017


We disembark in Dunkirk.  Well, not quite, somewhere between Dunkirk and Calais.  And then we ride like the wind along the coast eastwards with the intention of camping outside Bruges.  This is a dream, because it all takes longer than we imagined.  

This part of France is a string of villages that have become towns and all look modern, clean and bland in that comforting European way.  No grit or grime, no grey or grizzle.  Everything looks spic and span.  At every crossroads there are only directional signs at the junction.  This seems quite bizarre.  We have to stop at every junction to read the signs which are placed on all four corners, pointing down their respective routes.  It is from the age of horse and cart. 

Our time in France lasts about as long as a packet of biscuits.

bluebirds over

misogynists' country ?
Breakfast on the front at Bexhill feels rather civilised.  A nice shelter from the wind, a little sunshine, and public toilets.  What more could you need?  Dog-walkers, joggers, cyclists, and walkers all pass by and many look at us brewing up and say hello.  Amused, bemused?  A man comes to clean the glass in the shelter and apologises for disturbing us.  How civilised.  Less civilised is the bike route out of Hastings.  Someone in Sustrans clearly thinks it's a wheeze to choose the steepest lane imaginable out of the town.  Sure, there's little traffic on it, and sure, it takes us past a campsite and through some lovely parkland before leading us on to the way to Rye.  But it's a bloody long push.  I wondered if I'd recognise anything of Hastings when we pass through because we used to visit my grandparents here around Easter time when we were kids.  I bought my first Tintin book in a WH Smiths here. But there's nothing I remember.  Oh, except for the crazy golf on the front.

The cycle route takes us inland to Rye through fields of vivid yellow gorse.  The big skies darken and it hails just as we get to the centre.  We are having our lunch in the shelter of the supermarket to escape wind and rain when two young dudes stop to ask us where we're heading.  One of them has been touring and is about to return to Kyrgyzstan where he abandoned his ride last year.  We share our experience at Birling Gap the previous day and they seem totally unsurprised. 
Romney Marsh
Tucking this social contact under our belts, we head off across the marshes towards the picturesquely-named St.Mary-in-the-Marsh.  There are big skies and a sharp south-easterly wind which brings a chill to our bones.  We pause for biscuits and a breather outside St. Mary's 12th century church.  It's all in quite good nick, considering it's age.   Then we cut left and right around the fields to rejoin the coast and arrive in Folkestone on a good long bike path away from the traffic.  The path ends suddenly at the town with big excavations but we manage to get onto a road which leads us to a chippy.  It's a grey, grim part of the town, full of cheap hotels and booze shops.  It seems like a great place to have our final supper in England, so fish, chips and peas it is.  

There's nothing like a big stodgy meal to help you up the hills.  We zig and zag up steep quiet surburban streets of semis (try saying that quickly.......okay, now try cycling it) and then onto an overgrown bike path that leads back onto the clifftops above the town.  It's getting dark and cold when we finally find a lane that leads to a track that leads to a gap in the middle of a field of rape.   The gap is where the tractor has entered and left the field and it's just big enough to put the tent.  In a plot nearby skittish horses snort and neigh at us.  

It's a cold night.  We can scrape the frost off the tent in the morning.  Happily it's a big descent into Dover where we breakfast in a carpark and dry the tent out in the sunshine.  A man in a van remarks on our load.  He's a cyclist and he wishes us all the best on our way.  We don't have a ferry ticket but we can ride into the ferry terminal, pass the French police check, and then through the security gate before we buy our tickets to Dunkirk.  There are ferries heading to Calais and Dunkirk every hour, which means a phenomenal number of lorries coming and going.  It would be hard to imagine this port when we leave the EU and the customs checks resume........

Blue sky and sunshine as we sail away from England. White cliffs too. And France is just ...là bas.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

oh we do like to be beside the seaside

 Dino acompanies us 'off the premises' as it were - leading us along the bike paths that take us into Brighton and out the other side.  He points out 'Millionaire's Row', five large houses that front onto the west end of Brighton beach and where the beach is closed to the public.  Outrageous.  These miserable celebrities might have a nice view out front but the backside of their houses is a small industrial estate.  As we roll into Brighton proper we pass 'No Cycling' signs on the
 promenade.  But it's spring time and the promenade is quiet.  Dino confesses that Suzi would be displeased to know he was taking us this way and she's not alone.  "Oh look, some more people who can't read" a woman shouts sarcastically at us as we pass by.  I point to her dog, which is not on a leash.  "You too!"  A little later an old man grumbles at us, muttering about criminals.  The cycle path rejoins us as we negotiate the marina and then out under the cliffs at the east end of town, where we finally say our farewells.

We head eastwards rolling merrily along in the sunshine. Outside a supermarket an old couple remark on our loaded bikes.  I tell them we're off to Alaska and the chatty old lady nods her head towards her taciturn husband saying "He used to ride his bike everywhere".  Before they get on their bus they wish us all the best.  These kind of spontaneous good wishes always leave us feeling extremely happy - something we wouldn't experience if we were just travelling to work and back every day.

are you sure this is the bike path?

Along this stretch of the coast are the white chalk cliffs known as the Seven Sisters where we almost get lost on a bike route that takes us across several fields.  Bizarrely we meet large groups of tourists tramping towards us - French school kids, a Chinese family, some Japanese women - all in search of the iconic view of the cliffs.  We have to negotiate a tricky stretch of A road before we can turn off again onto back roads that lead to Birling Gap, where the cliffs part at the beach.  There's a cafe and tourist information place here with toilets and the car park is busy.  We amble out to look along the beach where a few walkers are strolling along.  A motorcyclist in leathers indicates a couple who have just walked off ina hurry.  "They've just spotted a body on the beach.  They've gone to phone the Old Bill."  We are shocked by this.  We didn't realise people actually did refer to the police as 'the Old Bill'.  Out amongst the seaweed and rocks on the shoreline, exposed by the retreating tide is a dead woman with no clothes.  We watch in morbid fascination as a walker slowly gets nearer and nearer to the body.  He is clearly oblivious of the horror before him.  And then he stops, he looks, he steps away, he turns, and very slowly he retreats to the stairs back up to the carpark.  We are all in shock.  Staff from the cafe come to close off the stairs and within a couple of minutes two large policewomen drive up.  We move off and along the road towards Beachy Head, the highest cliff.  It's on this road that we pass a car that at first looks like a breakdown recovery vehicle, and it sort of is.  "24 hour Chaplain Service" it says.  "We are here to talk to if you need".  This might be the UK's suicide hotspot, and it leaves us feeling cold and hollow.
Sluice Lane
It's probably not a great time to pass through Eastbourne, which is a rather depressing sprawl of seaside town, the antithesis of Brighton.  Half an hour at the local Asda store and our depression is complete.  Everyone looks overweight, ill or badly dressed.  Sorry, let me rephrase that.  Everyone looks overweight, ill and badly-dressed.  We are such snobs.  Hurriedly we cycle out of town.  This part of the coast looks quite built up on the map but we are saved by the romantically-named Sluice Lane, which cuts down to the seafront through fields that have deep water channels all around them.
If we carry on we will arrive in the next town, so we stop to cook on the beach and then backtrack to a field with a gate and a stile.  Without much ado, we unload over the gate, pass the bikes over, and quickly hide ourselves behind the hedgerow.  Thank goodness for hedgerows.  Our night's peace is broken only when a car pulls up at the gate at around midnight.  A car door opens.  We expect to be rousted but nothing happens.  The driver gets back in and drives off.  It's only in the morning that we find some flattened cardboard boxes dumped in the turn-off. 

Monday, 24 April 2017

old faces, new places

We roll up to the pub on Steyning's high street at exactly the same time as Dino, who's come to meet us here.  Before we know it we're drinking beer and having a pub lunch with Dino and Suzi's sister, Ness, and her family.  Suzi is at work but Dino, who works in the North Sea, is a man of leisure.  Sometimes. 

We met Dino and Suzi in Tajikistan and cycled together in Kyrgyzstan from Osh to Bishkek.  This was a small challenge for us, because they cycled faster than us and travelled lighter.  But it worked out fine, because they're not hardcore speed cyclists and are incredibly laid back.  Well, Dino is. Suzi enjoys getting the bit between her teeth and giving it a good ol' shake now and again.  They are both very funny and lovely people and we're very happy to catch up with them three years on. They recently moved and Dino leads us down to the coast to their house.  It feels a little like being in one of those property TV shows, when the host turns to the guest couple and says "take a look at this place, which is only thirty thousand over your budget" when Dino leads us down the road where many of the older houses are being demolished and replaced with modern alternatives.  Some of the older houses look quite awful - pebble dash just doesn't do it I'm afraid.  But there are also a couple of concrete bunkers - brutalist masterpieces.  Dino points to a very swish and elegant house and says "this is us", but he's obviously pulling our legs.  Except he isn't.  
the Great British seaside
The house is brand new and finished, but the garden is almost bare and the house needs a few fixtures and fittings.  Dino has a long list of jobs which we endeavour to keep him from over the weekend.  Suzi returns from a hard day at 'the office' and still manages to rustle up a great meal.  The reunion is completed when Hannah and Damian arrive from London.  We first met Hannah and Damian in Dushanbe when we were stranded waiting for permits to cycle the Pamir Highway.  We then met up again at a guesthouse in Khorog where there must have been over a dozen cyclists, most of us cycling east.  

Suzi's cookbooks
Needless to say we eat well (Suzi is a great cook) and drink well.  Our hosts are supremely hospitable and quite frankly, we are shattered.  Well, Gayle seems energized but I'm feeling quite exhausted after our ride southwards.  So much for getting fit on the road.  England has been extremely hilly so far.  At the beginning, when we began wild camping again, Gayle did wonder if this was what she really wanted to do, but that doubt soon disappeared.  We've been enjoying being back on the road again.  The fact that the weather has been so good does undoubtedly help.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

the ups

from the sublime..
.. to the ridiculous
In the morning we cross the Avon and take quiet roads along a valley skirting Salisbury Plain.  There are signs and posts indicating army training and tank manouvres.  There's also an airfield which later on we realise is probably for parachute training.  Was that gunfire we just heard?  By noon we can see the steeple of Salisbury Cathedral long before we reach the city - it's impressive.  Excitedly we follow the bike paths into the city centre, lose sight of the cathedral and get lost amongst the shops and tourists before finding our way through to a large green surrounded by benches where we can bask in the sun with a view of the cathedral and eat lunch and discuss the distance on to Winchester with a slightly crazy woman sitting on the next bench.  

It's a relatively easy ride east towards Winchester through quiet farmland with lots of woodland and tree-lined roads.  Easy?  In the late afternoon it starts to get hillier and then we have an enormous descent.  We're looking forward to coasting into Winchester before heading out to camp on the other side.  But we didn't count on the hills.  Winchester is surrounded by them and the road up to the surrounding ridge is rush-hour busy.  Fortunately the Navigator is On The Ball.  She has stopped to chat to a couple of road cyclists who tip her off to a back road climb into Winchester.  It's up narrow but empty lanes and brings us into a housing estate at the top of the hill.  We descend down the other side but can't find our way to the junction which should let us pass under the motorway.  In the end we ride into the city centre and get picked up by a cohort of lycra-clad club cyclists off on an evening spin.  They check we know where we are going (we don't) before heading off.   
English or Spanish?
Inevitably we have to climb another huge hill to get out of town but we end up on a road with lots of traffic and not many camping options.  The road is ludicrously busy and we have no idea why.  After faffing around in some woods and then onto some racehorse training ground (an uphill dirt track, if you're interested), we finally settle for a stile into an unused field where we can hide behind the hedgerow.  We're about six feet from the road, which is still busy, but at least no-one can see us.

The only thing standing in our way now is the South Downs.  There's a route eastwards across the ridge, starting from Winchester, but already we are off course because of our camping needs.  The road heads down and then straight back up.  We cruise.  We curse.   Fast, slow, fast, slow.  Down, up, down, up.  Like a demented metronome, our rhythm is all shot.  After lunch we finally join the bike route - cutting through the Queen Elizabeth Millenium Park which is full of mountain bikers throwing themselves down woodland trails.  We climb upwards and note that the mountain bikers are slower than us.  Upwards, downwards, upwards.  The track becomes horribly rutted again and too steep for us to pedal.  We push up two consecutive climbs and look at our watches.  This will take too long.  We told Suzy and Dino that we'd arrive tomorrow and arrive we shall.  But not cycling the South Downs Way.  We detour onto the roads that run parallel on the northside and instantly feel better. Riding off-road with a fully-loaded bike takes time and effort - both of which we are rather short of by now.
the tallest hedgerows we've seen since Cheshire...
Happily the roads through this part of Hampshire are still very peaceful, if not flat, and we scoot merrily along for the rest of the day.  We pass through some enormous estates and there are seem to be more horses here than any other animal.  The earth is bone dry and we wonder how on earth the farmers grow anything.  It appears to be a completely different climate to the one we know in the Pennines.  The woods are full of bluebells and on one quiet road near a village we come across a small herd of deer out on the edge of some trees.  We're astonished.   We camp in some woods next to a peaty bog covered in heather.  But the bog has dried up and everything around the tent is tinder dry.  Gayle rolls her eyes as I fuss about cooking the dinner.  But I'll be the one to blame if the stove ignites any of the vegetation, so I continue fussing.

The worst road we ride in England is the 7 mile stretch the next morning from Storrington to Steyning along the A283.  It's alleviated somewhat by a traffic jam in Storrington - a large village cursed by a set of traffic lights.  We ride as hard as we can once the trafffic picks up and get off the road for quick breathers.  This is the longest stretch of A or B road we have cycled since setting off, which feels like an achievement in itself.  The English Channel beckons.

Friday, 21 April 2017

the downs

'Oxfordshire? It's real Midsommer Murder country is Oxfordshire.'  Ellen's words repeat in our heads as we wend through some very pretty and, clearly, very wealthy villages.  Lots of thatched cottages, well-kept gardens, and nasty vicious murderers lurking behind every privet hedge, no doubt.  We really enjoy riding through this part of England - we are both discovering an England we don't know. The trouble is we can't hang about - we said we'd be in Shoreham-By-Sea by Friday and there's plenty to do before then.

We circuit Brize Norton airbase after stopping in the town for supplies.  The town is odd - like something out of the Truman Show.  It's phony.  It's new.  It's been built to service the airbase.  But the locals we ask for directions and help buying petrol are all extremely helpful.  We want to see some horses today - the chalk horses that can be found around Uffington and the North Downs.  The villages we pass through seem picture-postcard-perfect.  There's money in them thar villages, that's for sure.  It's also getting warmer and we've noticed that the trees are all in leaf and gardens are flowering.  We pass cottages coated in water-coloured wisteria. 

The Uffington Horse is on a hill.  Our AA road map has some chalk horses marked, but we don't realise the topography until we arrive there.  Lung-bursting climbs, breakneck descents, swooping bends, and repeat.  You can ride up onto the Downs and join the walkers on the bridlepath for a close up view - but you don't get a real proper view without taking to the sky, as some parapenters have.  The alternative is to head back across the vale to some of the villages further north but we only find this out afterwards.  The horse dates back to the Bronze Age and is a wonderful piece of art.  It begs the question who made the horses and for whom?
a close-up of the white horse
Our navigator finds a great little farm road to follow the Downs.  It looks like a road to nowhere, especially when it becomes a dirt track, but we doggedly follow it between hedgerows and fields and some nice wild-camping spots before it starts to gradually ascend the northern flanks of the hills.  We finally emerge on the ridge and continue along it heading west, south west with great views north and south.  The fields are a yellow and green patchwork rolling off into the distance. 

The track is smooth, hardened chalk and rutted and rough in places.  It gradually bends southwards and we realise we are not far from Avebury - the poor man's Stonehenge.  Some folk have told us not to bother with Stonehenge - you can't walk amongst the stones anymore and the nearby busy A-road kills the atmosphere.  We stop at a perfectly located bench for a cup of tea and a biscuit (can there be a better combination?), and another cyclist coming up the hill from the opposite direction pauses for breath.  He tells us where we can detour to Avebury.  He looks over our bikes - he's off touring in the summer to somewhere I can't remember where - and is on a training mission.  But it's getting on and the sun is going down, so we keep heading southwards towards Salisbury Plain.  In a village we are looking around for a source of water when some unlucky fella asks us if we need any help.  We show him our empty bottles and he gamely fills them all up for us.  Now all we need to do is find somewhere to camp.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

selective memory

"You forgot what that man said to us as we were saying goodbye."
"Which man?"
"The one on the hill in the village - the one you made some crude double entendre about playing his organ."
"What did he say?"
"He said 'Thanks for stopping to chat.  I needed that'."

Wednesday, 19 April 2017


Our route through the West Midlands avoids all the big urban sprawl, although we do come uncomfortably close to Nuneaton.  The lanes are busy with cyclists, mostly in groups on a Sunday spin. We are sticking to country lanes and aiming for Warwick where we stop for lunch in the park.  Nearby is a village where Gayle's mum and dad lived after they married.  We go and seek out their old house - but it's not there.  Isabell had described how the river Avon just flowed by at the end of the garden and sure enough here is the street and there is the Avon, but strangely no number 10.  The street numbering is all higgledy-piggledy so we go back and forth for a bit to make sure we've not missed it.  Nope. Nothing. Zilch.  Later that evening Gayle texts her mum to tell her the story.  She texts back "Maybe it was number 9".

When we reach Stratford-upon-Avon the Bard is not foremost in our minds.  We're slightly shocked to find the town heaving at the end of the day with local and foreign tourists, and we can only summon the energy to fill up our water supplies before clearing off.  After an April shower and a few devious twists and turns we find a bike path along an old rail line.  Regrettably there are a few too many dogwalkers for it to make a good stop for the night, but then we find a park area backing onto a campsite.  There's a path through woods and some more open land where the grass has just been conveniently cut.  It's a perfect place to stop for the night.  We get back into the old routine of brewing up, cooking the dinner and then snuggling down for a read/music whilst scoffing some chocolate.  Creatures of habit.

Our next day leads us into more honeypots - pretty little Cotswold villages that attract tourists like flies.  The roads are up and down and we're glad of breathers to just have a quick look around - oh and use the facilities of course!  A toilet in a carpark is worth two in the bush, as we like to say.  No Lidl or Aldi in this neck of the woods - our supermarket shopping is sparse when we see the price of things.  We climb more steep hills and find a road following along a long ridge which offers some nice views for very little effort.   And then down and up and down.  On one long low climb into a village I slowly approach a man walking along in the same direction.  I huff and puff past him until he calls out 'is it steel?'  I stop immediately, glad of the excuse.  He's pointing to the bike. 'I use to tour around Scotland' he explains 'I'm thinking of getting a new bike.'  He's looking in vain for the make and model but I've removed them from both bikes.  We chat a little more before he heads off to the church for 'a little organ practice' - hopefully not a euphemism.

We're pretty shattered at the end of the afternoon and look for an early camp in woods beyond a field of rape.  It's a lovely spot and we're well away from the road, although behind the woods we can hear traffic from an A road.  So far we've avoided A and B roads and happily followed the 'white roads' on our road map.  The climbs might be steeper but at least no cars are flying past us at speed either.  I fall asleep almost immediately after getting into my sleeping bag.  Gayle is engrossed in Sudoku....

Monday, 17 April 2017


I'm on our mobile phone to Mick.  "Wait for us in the pub.  There'll be a brass band reception outside for you!"  Mick, Claire and Ellen are on the way back from a day out to Harry Potter Land with Jess and Jack and they won't be in Baddesley Ensor for another hour or so.  There is no brass band.  It's pissing down.  We've just cycled up a hill steep enough to make an angel swear and she's still cussing behind me.  There's nowhere to put the bikes except up against the picnic tables outside the pub.  We're tired and wet.  On the way here we took a wrong turn out of a village and then climbed a very long hill to a miserable place called Dordon.  As the spanish saying goes 'all dogs look black in the night' but the rain definitely wasn't helping Dordon.  Everyone looked a bit ..... deficient.  I suspect Baddesley Ensor might be like this.

I can't open the door to the pub.  "Try pushing the door" Gayle suggests.  I see the word 'push' emblazoned on the door below the handle.  She's a bright one is Gayle, while clearly I should be living in Dordon.  When we walk in a hush descends over the pub and everyone stops to stare at us.  No, not at all.  Everyone carries on chatting.  The place is busy and warm, judging by the way my glasses steam up and our cheeks start glowing.  Ellen has told us there'll be drinks waiting for us and Dave the landlord invites us to take a seat and get comfy before ordering.  It's a nice boozer - no telly, no music, no food.  Just people sat or stood in clusters having a drink and talking away.  Ellen's Dave soon joins us and regales us with stories and snippets of local gossip like a man possessed, and occasionally looks over both shoulders before saying more.  He clearly likes to talk, and sometimes is very funny.  We mention Dordon.  "Dordogne?" he sniffs.

Baddesley Ensor
 Soon after we are gathered all together. I used to share a flat with Claire years ago. She would sometimes mention her home village Baddesley Ensor and my friend Isa would call it Beelzebub.  It would always remain a mysterious and far off place to us.  And now here we are.  Ellen and Claire are old friends from primary school.  The school has gone and so has the coal mine around which most of the village grew.  Now it's a carpark for Landrover and Jaguar. Over the hill is the Manor House -occupied by David Cameron's cousin, Lord Dugdale.

We have a really relaxing couple of nights here with a sunny day in between.  Ellen is a really laid-back host and we have a walk around the countryside with Claire and Mick and their kids.  We feel a little bit weird being back indoors after spending three days virtually always outside - only going in to shops for food.  Indoors has a different feeling.

It's all over pretty quickly though and we are waved off by Ellen on a sunny Easter Day with tips about the route southwards through Warwickshire and church bells ringing across the village. 'They're ringing just for you!' she shouts after us.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

oh my country

The first part of our journey we wanted to visit friends we haven’t seen for a long time.  So we (I use the pronoun in the regal sense, as Gayle does all the social legwork, keeping in touch via e-mail and Facebook) contacted friends and then, naturally, they asked when would we be arriving.  So before we knew it we were writing on a calendar names and places with a ‘final’ objective of catching the ferry from Denmark to the Faroe Islands at the end of May.

Ellen in Baddesley Ensor had written to ask when could we meet and invited us to stay with her on our way south.  So our exploratory ride south to parts of England we have never seen leads us through Cheshire and into Shropshire and then Warwickshire.  The days are cloudy but mild.  We ride through rolling farmland with big hedgerows full of startled pheasants.  We find water at churches and seek shelter from April showers under trees.  There are canals all over this part of the country with narrow boats pootling along at an even slower pace than us.   

We are feeling the hills.  The back country roads are fairly quiet but the hills are steep, if short, and our pace varies from almost stand-up stopping still to carefree screaming with joy freefall as we rollercoaster up and down, up and down.  The trouble is we have spent nearly a year in Viet Nam doing very little exercise because of the climate.  When people ask about how you prepare for a cycle journey like this we glibly respond by saying that you don't, you just get fitter day by day.  And day by day we are certainly geting some good training.

Maundy Thursday.  We stop at an old church in woods on a hill.  There’s no tap, but behind the church is a posh hotel with a connecting path.  It was once the manor house, and what a manor.  The hotel overlooks extensive walled gardens and rolling farmland.  As I crunch up the gravel driveway leading to a full carpark I see people walking around in white bathrobes and white slippers.  No-one is wearing anything else.  Is this a strange new-age sect?  Then I see the sign pointing to the spa.  Aha.   At reception I ask if I can get water and a member of staff takes our odd mix of plastic bottles into a staff room to fill up.  We both carry a one litre bottle and a one and a half litre and the woman is gone some time.  All around me are people milling about in white terylene bathrobes.  I'm in shorts and a bike helmet and feel conspicuously overdressed.

Good Friday.  In the centre of England is a national memorial arboretum for the rememberance of British killed in war.  We stop here at lunchtime and take a walk around the park grounds, which are extensive.  The memorial is fairly new and is, if you'll excuse the pun, growing.  Trees have been planted out and are still quite immature, and there are separate memorials for different parts and units of the armed forces.  Interestingly, there is also included an informative memorial for the Polish who escaped Poland and continued to fight.  I knew about the pilots who took part in the Battle of Britain, but I hadn't heard of the soldiers who were released from Russia's Siberian camps and who made their way to the Middle East to join the fight.  There is also a striking memorial for soldiers court martialled and shot for desertion during the Great War.  Most depressing of all is the central monument, a series of curved walls with the names of all those killed in service since the end of the Second World War.  Suddenly I realise how frequently our country has sent soldiers out to war.  Thoughtfully, there is plenty of space for the next few generations' names.

each post represents an executed soldier