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Biking from Canterbury to Belfast
Bob Moen's Tour de U.K. 1999 begins
Tuesday, May 18, 1999 - Dispatch #1


Bob Moen

I've ridden about a 100 miles so far and I must say that I've never felt stronger this early in a ride-clearly a good sign. I attribute this to the weightlifting that I've done in preparation. Strength does count in bike riding. For the record: This trip to the U.K. will cost me about 7% more than last year since the pound now trades for $1.72. Last year, as I recall, it was $1.60. Ouch! I think it was about $1.40 just three years ago.

Saturday I arrived at Heathrow airport in London, thanks to a cramped, 9-hour British air flight ($540 roundtrip from San Francisco). A bus and a train got me to Canterbury about 50 miles Southeast of London where I secured a room at the small, well-located Slatters Hotel for the special 30-pound weekend rate. I spent about 2-hours exploring the town on foot until I made the mistake of drinking a Guinness which reminded my body that it was 10AM California time and I had not slept all night. I was barely able to wolf down an order of fish and chips before I crashed. I woke up at 1AM, raring to go, but only to find the pubs had already closed for the night. By 2AM the hotel night manager was visibly tired of entertaining me so I moved my show down the street to the local Indian take-out where I demonstrated the poor judgment of ordering a large, spicy lamb kebob. By 3AM my heartburn had subsided enough that I was able to go tosleep.

It was in the lobby of the hotel that I overhead a conversation between two college-aged German lads. I had no idea of what they were saying, but every once in a while I'll hear the words "American Dream." Hearing them converse in German reminded me of just how wonderfully international is England as a country and a culture. At the same time I was reminded of how woefully provincial is America-infuriating so from the European point of view, I'm sure. Here in England it is not uncommon to hear people discussing America, but in the U.S. it is extremely rare to overhear a discussion in which England or Europe is mentioned. Sunday I unpacked by bike from its plastic shipping crate and assembled it. Thanks a local fellow who directed me to a bike route I had pleasant 20-mile ride over the back roads to Dover: the sun was out, the flowers were in bloom and the birds were singing-it was great. The route took me through several charming, old villages. ...thatched roofs and all. I found two small 13th century churches-unlocked and open for my inspection-which made a greater impression on me than the Canterbury Cathedral which I had toured the day before. Whereas the small churches were spiritual and intimate the cathedral bespoke of power, oppression and politics. The cathedral had roped-off areas, required that I purchase a photo permit should I want to take a picture and was full of tourists, one of which was an especially annoying guy in a Bugs Bunny T-shirt who seemed to have no interest in the cathedral since he would not stop talking about his last fishing trip--all which diminished the moment I was trying to have.

I stumbled across a small ancient chapel in Dover which has a most interesting story. It is very old, older than the cathedrals, but over the ages it fell into obscurity and became totally surrounded and enclosed by other buildings. By the 19th century it was being used as a blacksmith's shop. In WWII the chapel was rediscovered when the Germans shelled Dover and uncovered the chapel by destroying the buildings surrounding it. Its since been restored to original its state and sits surrounded by downtown Dover, which by the way is nothing to shout about.

While in Dover I discovered that the White Cliffs of Dover are chalk. And that if you lean against them your left side gets all covered with white powder. I really liked Canterbury. It is a college, cathedral (read tourist) town of 50,000 with the largest, oldest downtown area I've seen in the U.K. Many of its shops date back to the fifteenth and sixteenth century. Apparently if a building is newer than 1600 they don't even bother to put a date on it. Most of the buildings appear to be typical medieval timber frame construction with wattle and daub panels between the frame. Wattles are woven panels (think rattan furniture) which are daubed on both sides with a mixture of clay, dung and straw, then whitewashed or painted. Many structures also had second and third floor jetties which jut out beyond the wall below, forming an overhand. In addition to being a demonstration of wealth, jetties were practical, providing both extra floor space and protection from the rain. As with many of the old downtown areas, Canterbury wisely turned its narrow downtown streets into a mall so that shoppers, tourists and drunken college kids--yes, Canterbury like the rest of the U.K. has a problem with public drunkenness-all go about their business without the hassle of auto traffic. All in all, Canterbury impresses me as a fun, safe, vibrant town with an active nightlife. I got a late start leaving Canterbury on Tuesday because of numerous beginning-of-a-tour tasks such as getting my bike racks installed and packed, and arranging for shipment of my bike-case to Edinburgh. Consequently, Monday was a no-nonsense, pedal-to-the-metal day. Thankfully a great tailwind helped compensate for the horrendous traffic I endured on the old, narrow Dover-London road.

I put into port in Rochester, an ancient (aren't they all) seaport town on River Medway. It has its own castle (don't they all). But unlike in other towns, the Rochester Castle-who's claim-to-fame is that it has the tallest keep in the U.K.-is in the downtown area. Next to the castle I had the good fortune of finding a 25-pound room at the stately Longley House B&B (01634 819108). From my room I had a great view of the castle and from my bathroom a great view of the river. Part of the Longley house is built upon a 2,000-year-old roman wall-that's what I call heritage. Its proprietors are a warm, friendly Italian woman named Margherita Gremegna and here husband, noted English jazz musician, James Taylor. Margherita cooks a mean English Breakfast-great herb sausage and a sparing use of olive oil, rather than the typical British grease. Her fried/steamed/grilled (?) mushrooms were the best I've ever had.

Do you remember the "crop circles" that used to be found in English fields? I thought they had been explained away by a couple blokes who said they made them as pranks. Well, that is not the case at all. Margherita showed me a book she's reading entitled, I believe, "Vital Facts." It shows photographs of recent, absolutely amazing crop circles that are not circles at all. They are perfectly executed, patterns that have been found in fields near Stonehenge. They could not have possibly been made overnight. ...or-is that Twilight Zone music I hear--by humans? Where is the world press? Where is Heraldo?

I arrived in London at noon today. I met up Virginia, with a friend/work associate, who is here doing business with Lloyds of London. We had lunch at a favorite pub of another friend, James, a Lloyd's broker. It's a small, back-alley establishment known only to London business people. Immediately they spotted us as outsiders --was it the spandex?--and took-on that better-than-thou attitude that the British do so well. Undeterred, we took on the white-trash attitude that Americans do so well ("Where's the ketchup for my fries?"). I'm tempted to mention the pub's name with the hope of having it overrun with tourists, but frankly, I agree with them: We all need a sanctuary. Plus, I would not go back if it was full of tourists.

Tonight I sit in the clean, well lighted Internet Cafe near my sleazo 43-pound room in a fleabag hotel near Paddington Station. I certainly have mixed feelings toward London: there is so much to see, I don't know where to start. On the other hand it is crawling with tourists and the kitsch they bring with them. Frankly, my biggest thrill is riding these big city streets on my bike, darting in-and-out of double decker buses and dodging those ubiquitous black taxis. But, rather than push my luck, I'll take a train to Oxford tomorrow because it is the beautiful English countryside, small villages and observing the natives in there natural habitat (i.e. village pubs) that really interest me.

Dispatch #2:

1998 Tour-de-UK Dispatches
Dispatch #1: Day 2 - Truro, Cornwall, England
Dispatch #2: Day 4 - Exeter, Devon, England
Dispatch #3: Day 8 - Cardiff, Wales
Dispatch #4: Day 11 - Galway City, Ireland
Dispatch #5: Day 17 - Belfast, N. Ireland
Dispatch #6: Day 26 - Edinburgh, Scotland


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