An Excellent Adventure
My cycling during 1996 had been a disaster. No matter what event was coming up, something always seemed to thwart my plans to attend. I even had to drop out of the Grand Tour two days before time to leave. But, there can always be a ray of sunshine even on the darkest days. Just when it appeared that the whole year would slip by without my being able to do much more than a few donut rides, things began to fall into place for a fantastic cycling odyssey. September 13th found me winging my way across the Atlantic toward England.
Trains which rip through the quiet countryside at well over a hundred miles an hour whisked me the 130 miles from Gatwick airport to a friend's home in historic Bath where I spent the first day fighting jet lag and the second touring the beautiful city on foot. Then, armed with maps on which he had notated various sights which might be of interest to me, I set off on a borrowed Raleigh Mountain Bike. The only firm plan I had was to be back in five days. I had my doubts about an extended tour with straight handlebars but it proved to be an ideal mount since most of the roads I traveled would have been very unkind on narrow tires.
I pedaled eastward out of Bath on a path once trod by horses as they pulled longboats along the Kennet & Avon Canal until hunger brought me to a stop for the night at a B&B in a village aptly named Hungerford. Most of those sturdy boats, which once carried cargo between London and Bristol, have been converted into gaudy, water-bound RVs and are now moored end to end for miles along the banks of the canal.
I left the canal to travel northward on roads barely wide enough for a car to see the ancient Uffington castle and a white horse larger than a football field. It was created by cutting away six inches of sod to reveal the white chalk hill underneath. Not only by whom, but when or why it was created is a mystery but it's known to have been prancing across the hillside since 1607. From there I followed a pathway beaten into the ground a thousand years ago by people on their way to the ancient village of Avebury where hundreds of stones stand in geometric patterns. That night I slept in a house built before Columbus set sail in 1492, and dined in a place which serves no meat.
That whole area is rent with deep ditches which serve no apparent purpose but run for miles in perfectly straight lines. Everywhere you look the landscape is dotted with burial mounds known as tumuli. The largest mound stands three hundred feet high and covers five acres. Experts estimate that it took 500 men ten years to build it.
Drawn like a lemming to the sea, I climbed the steep trails taking me to the Salisbury Plain to visit England's most famous tourist trap, but after the grandeur of the stone circles of Avebury, Stonehenge was almost a disappointment. That night I stayed in the ultimate in low cost lodging for hikers and cyclists, a camping barn. As the name implies, it's a barn with a few cots for weary travelers. The cost is only two pounds, about three dollars. If you don't have a sleeping bag, they rent you a blanket and a sleeping sack for another pound. A sleeping sack is much like an oversize pillow case. Dinner that night was a huge bowl of lamb stew cooked in an iron pot hanging in a fireplace. Needless to say, with the fear of mad cow disease, few places in England serve beef.
I wandered the rural pathways of Southeastern England, intentionally avoiding the usual tourist haunts and staying in small towns with odd sounding names. Every village, no matter how small, has a local pub which if moved to Oklahoma, would be considered to be a true redneck bar. The favored amusement after a few pints of beer isn't anything as mundane as pool or darts, but a wild game called Ferret Legging.
People in rural England keep ferrets to control household pests like mice, snakes, crickets, roaches and spiders. With claws as sharp as needles, they are also able scamper up walls and across beamed ceilings in pursuit of moths and flies. When not earning their keep as vermin wardens, they delight in a constant game of chase as they dart in and out of small dark places.
Those who plan to participate in a game of Ferret Legging bring their own ferrets in wire cages the size of lunch pails. While their owners work on pints of stout, the ferrets, which can see one another in their cages, are working up enthusiasm for a good chase, or whatever else ferrets like to do.
When the time comes for the game, tables are moved back and everyone who wants to enter puts a ten pound note on the bar, then they get into a huddle like a football team. When everyone is ready, they dump their ferrets down their pants and hang on to one another. Spectators stuff their pant legs inside their socks and women pull their skirts tight around their legs so they won't become part of the game.
Within seconds the chase is on with ferrets racing up one pant leg, over the top and down the other, not caring whose pants they are in nor whether their needle sharp claws are attacking fabric or bare skin. The attrition of players is rather rapid as they dance out of the ring trying to shake ferrets out of their pants. The last man with ferrets in his pants wins. Ferrets are returned to their cages while the winner picks up the money and buys drinks for the house. It's a lot more fun to watch than a chug-a-lug contest.
Along the way I came across the locations where two fairly famous movies were shot. Dr. Dolittle talked to the animals in a place called Castle Combe and what was the ocean where the ship was moored is nothing more than a stream a few inches deep. I didn't realize it at the time, but a 400 year old inn called "The George" where I spent a night was also where Tom Jones was filmed. I had dinner in the room where the famous seduction scene was staged. It is rather surprising that there was no advertising of a movie having been filmed there. I rented the video and recognized the place.
Only on such a venture could one come across a convention of antique bus collectors. I rode into a village where there must have been twenty of them, each meticulously restored to the way it looked the day it rolled out of the factory. The oldest was built in 1924 and had to be cranked by hand. I knew people collected all sorts of things, but I never expected one for London double-decker buses.
There was no computer on the bike, but I estimate that I rode about 180 miles in the five days. The distances between towns is so short, and there are so many thing to see and do that there is no need to pile on long distances each day. Also, that part of the country is so compact that one can ride across it in a single day.
It's said that when traveling in a car one touches the pavement, but on a bicycle they touch the people. I truly believe it. Everywhere I went people were most gracious and helpful.
The last three days of my odessey were spent doing the tourist thing in London, a city of seven million people, half of whom speak a language other than English and most of them going someplace at the same time. They have the greatest underground public transportation system I've ever seen. Once mastered, it will take you just about any place you wish to go at speeds ten times faster than one could manage in the boiling traffic on the streets above.
I toured the Tower of London where people lost their heads for saying things which are now considred nothing more than political rhetoric. I checked my watch against Big Ben, listened to the chimes of Westminster Abbey and explored the rabbit warren known as the Cabinet War Rooms. It was closed the day WW-II ended and remained so for more than forty years until it was reopened as a tourist site. If you are a student of that great war, this is a must for anyone visiting London. I also saw the divorce lawyer's dream, Kensington Palace, probably the biggest house to ever change ownership when a couple split.
I did find one little bit of home: a place called the Texas Lone Star Cafe. Well, maybe not so much a taste of home. I am a fifth generation Texan and lived there for fifty years, but I have never eaten their daily special: lamb fajitas.
It was a fantastic trip and one which I would recommend to all. It certainly made up for any local riding I might have missed.
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Copyright © 1997 by Jim Foreman