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