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Where I Can See it Beyond the Hedges, the English Countryside is Lovely: 14-17 July 2015 (Dorchester, Sherborne,Salisbury, Pewsey and Bath)

I’ve decided to take a different approach with this blog and see how it goes.

My posts have been overly detailed. Meanwhile over on Instagram I’ve been posting one photo from each day – the best photo, the one I like the most. The pressure of detailed posts – a pressure entirely of my own making for, as grateful as I am for my few readers, you are few and undemanding.

So I’m going to take a similar approach to the blog as I’ve taken with the photos – I’ll tell you the best story of the day, the most memorable thing, or the observation which has best stuck with me. Let’s see how this goes. Feedback is appreciated.

Tuesday 14 July 2015

I wake to a grey day in my expensive hotel room in Dorchester and slowly get myself ready for the road.

I have the best coffee since Sydney at Number 35 Coffee House and enjoy the warm conviviality of Toby (the owner/barista) and his regular customers. They ask about my trip and suggest I’m having a midlife crisis. I correct them. “This trip,” I say, “is the clarity after the crisis.”

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Toby at No 35 Coffee House in Dorchester knows what he’s doing.

Fortified, I pedal off for another English day of rolling hills, hedged roads, cute villages and slightly confused way-finding.

I am aiming for Shaftsbury. There are some big climbs and swift descents. Some smaller, quieter roads, as well as some with close-passing fast-moving traffic. The slightly scary moments go with the territory but I’m feeling good, strong. I’m enjoying the riding – finding real simple joy in it.

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The Cerne Abbas Giant (and his giant erection)

Pedaling through a cross-roads village something goes wrong with my front wheel. Luckily I am going slowly, around an easy bend with no traffic.

The bolt holding my right front pannier (bag) rack to the frame has broken off – the body in the hob, the head in the rack. It hangs loose. If this had happened on one of my earlier descents or with fast passing traffic I might have been in real trouble.

This is my first mechanical problem and it is real. I pull into a little park to assess the damages. I use a cable-tie and duct tape to secure the rack in place and strap that pannier onto the rear rack. That will have to do until I can find a bicycle shop.

I still don’t data on my phone but looking at my map I see I’m a bit closer to Sherborne than I am to Shaftsbury and that Sherborne has a train station. Worse case scenario I get the train to Salisbury tomorrow and there is sure to be a bicycle shop there.

I crest a hill and roll into Sherborne a bit after 6 pm. It’s adorable – old stone buildings, a big church. I’m following my nose into the Town Centre hoping to find some sort of accommodation, hopefully cheaper than last night.

I come around a corner and … Riley’s Bicycles! And they are open!

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Ha ha ha – Yes!

Not only are they open but welcoming and only too happy to solve my problem.

Mike, the proprietor, sends me to the Bakehouse B & B when I ask for a suggestion.It’s just back at the junction and run by Malcolm, I’m told.

Malcolm responds to my knock – I’d never have spotted it as a B & B. Yes, he has a room – – £50 (still quite dear but a lot less than last night), ensuite with breakfast and WiFi.

Once I”m settled Malcolm directs me to the best fish and chip place and the best pub. “The rest are a bit corporate.”

The fish and chips are great – I eat in front of the abbey, the bells ding-donging away – seemingly for no reason though perhaps a service was beginning?

The pub was lively with locals – a good pick. There’s a poodle at the table next to me.

And, yes, there is a train that will take me to Salisbury tomorrow – unless I ride.

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Fish and Chip picnic with the Sherborne Abbey
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Local ale at the Digby Tap

Wednesday 15 July 2015

I linger in Sherborne. I like it.

I eat the enormous breakfast offered up by the B&B: toast, eggs, bacon, sausage, tomato, mushrooms, orange juice and fruit.”There’s more if you like.”

I visit Mike and my bicycle – he’s replaced my awful bar-tape with a much sturdier looking option. My pedals were on their dying days – last night we’d settled on as close a pair to mine as he’d had in stock but overnight he realised the one’s he had on his own every-day bicycle would be better, so he’d installed those and will just charge £4 for them. She’s looking good and ready to roll.

I take the train to Salisbury – getting in trouble with the conductor for having not pre-booked my bicycle. I had no idea I was supposed to.

Salisbury reminds me of Baltimore. The narrow residential streets lined with rowhouses which cram the older portions of the centre of town are reminiscent of the back streets of Fells Point. I guess it’s all English architecture of a similar era.

I circle the cathedral and consider attending a concert beginning there shortly – Bach by Candlelight. But it’s piano. Had it been cello or organ I’d have sprung for it.

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Salisbury Cathedral

I’m camped at the YHA (Youth Hostels Association) and spend my evening there. I make dinner and enjoy a few beers. I chat with the bloke at reception for a while and then with some teachers from Germany who are accompanying a school group on a trip to England.

After a few expensive nights, it’s good to be back in my tent.

Thursday 16 July 2015

Just when England and her drivers and Australian-like roads are feeding a bit of home-sickness … and the Salisbury Plain – which reminded me strongly of home. Happenstance, kindness and fortuitousness will out again.

After the high- really – of the fortuitous stuff on Tuesday followed by the seeming challenges of sorting accommodation along the way – I was feeling … not down exactly, not low or sad but maybe just a little tired, worn out, wishing I could be home for a few days. There’s a plus in not actually having a home – all my stuff is stored with a friend, so there is no bedroom waiting for me, no familiar couch or shower. In some way that makes it easier.

So it is in a bit of a funk that I head off to find Stonehenge.

The beginning of the ride – while I was on National Cycle Route 45 – was lovely. The road was rolling, the traffic light, nice houses, thatched roofs, roses. But then more hedge – I’ve come to really hate English hedges as they leave you with a view of a hedge, road and sky.

I come to a junction from whence my plotted route has me going right and looping around the backside of the Stonehenge site. But I can go left for a shorter route, and here, at this junction it looks quiet enough and there’s a foot path. Both these promises are soon be snatched away and I end up pushing my bicycle along a weedy verge next to a dual-carriageway chockers with traffic. But I could see the bloody stones on the horizon, I wasn’t going to retreat to the quieter route.

Sometimes in this business of bicycle travel that happens – you just have to push, through shin-high weeds, breathing exhaust.

I got to a place with some parked cars and a walking trail sign pointing to Stonehenge. Huzzah!  I thought. But when I got there – like right there, within 200 metres of the stones, I was told I needed to have already gotten my ticket. I was a the bus drop off zone. So I rode the kilometer or so to the visitors centre, locked up, collected my ticket and took a bus back to the stones.

They are very big stones. In a field. On a hill. Strangely with sprinklers going – like normal yard ones I would have run through as a child. And surrounded by a United Nations of tourists. It was cool but not amazing.

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Stonehenge & Sprinkler

I pedalled off confidently and in the wrong direction on a busy and unpleasant road. I added 15 kms to my day with this mistake. The new mp3 player I’d bought in Dorchester pumped David Bowie’s Hunky Dory into my ears. I sing along, out loud, against the roar of passing traffic. Sometimes you just have to pedal on; sometimes you wish for an alternative but there isn’t one.

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The Salisbury Plain reminded me so much of Australia as to be disorientating.

At 5:30 or 6:00 I arrived at the end of the Salisbury Plain to a spot overlooking a village in a valley. It’s gorgeous. God-rays of sunlight shining through clouds, copse of trees, green fields, and I think – everywhere I’ve been so far, the countryside has always been lovely. Sometimes dull but always lovely.

Bicycle touring – you cover less ground but see so much more.

I roll into town prepared to pay what I would. I stopped a family out for a cycle and asked if there was a B & B about. They pointed toward two B & Bs just up the road. The first drew no answer to my knock, the second was answered by a bright-blue-eyed woman in her late 70s. Very pleasant, very English – so sorry full up. I asked about nearby camping. She suggested the Coopers Arms about ½ a mile away. There the bartender, when I asked about camping, said I’d have to wait for the publican to return in two hours, as only he could give permission.

But a bloke on the other side of the bar, who overheard my query, directs me to Matt who is standing next to me. Matt has a campground. I have a beer; Matt finishes his, then we pop my bike into Matt’s car to drive the two miles to his pub – with camping out the back for £5 – too easy.

Friday 18 July 2015

In the pub last night the locals put me onto a direct route to the Kennet & Avon Canal which would get me off the country highways more quickly. They said the first few miles were a bit rough but that it improved after Devizes.

I was only too glad to get away from motor traffic. But the route I’ve taken is longer and proves to be – after some kilometers – rough as guts. It’s just a worn path through tall grass beside the canal. It’s lumpy and slow going. But a beautiful place – the canal, the boats and the ducks.

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Along the Kennet & Avon Canal

The thing about riding in England is it’s never completely good.

The Via Claudia Augusta in Northern Italy was basically completely good. There were steep bits but the conditions for tackling them were completely good.

At Devizes, the path did improve but not as much as I hoped. For a while it’s graded crushed gravel. But now it’s just rocky and a bit lumpy. I have to keep an eye on it – keep a look out for potholes, or big rocks, etc – so it’s hard to enjoy the views. I’m tired and that I want to be at home feeling has returned.

I push on, into a head wind, and arrive in Bath. It’s a beautiful old stone city and in the summer’s afternoon it glows. It’s good to park the bicycle and find myself in a nice city.

I’ve can’t believe I’ve been in England for a only a week. If feels longer.

Not quite my route.

I Will Miss the Tactile, the Small, the Changes (13 May 2015)

I’m at the midpoint between returning from my Australian test ride and boarding a plane for Milan. I am calm about the coming adventure – not entirely ready but ticking through the list and confident I will be good to go come Sunday 24 May.

I’m trying not to let my mind settle to long or too much on the size and scale of what lays in front of me. I see it in the eyes of my friends and acquaintances when I speak of it but I’ve been living with the idea of it and the myriad component parts of it for well over a year now, so in some ways for me it just is. It just is my present. It just is my coming and immediate future.

So I am just going about my business of packing what I’m storing, getting rid of that which I’m not, wrapping my mind around the first few weeks, reconnecting with old friends to see when and where I’ll find them, etc. I make lists and tick through them.

I’m glad I decided to have my Going Away Party before I left for my Australian ride. It was a great afternoon, evening and night as friends came and went. At the end we were my core Sydney mates drinking red wine like it was water, singing loudly and badly to a selection of songs from the 1980s and 1990s that were being especially chosen for their likelihood of pleasing me. So the sort of formal, ritualised farewell has happened.

That has allowed, then, in this space in between for the spending of time doing what I would normally do with my friends – like it is as it always is, but each engagement made just a little more luminescent by my nearing departure.

I’ve seen Jim’s Colourwheel permormance again – third time, still good. We had a meal down the pub – him and that circle of his mates. Afterwards, walking up Oxford Street toward the city I messaged Jonathan to see if he was home and up for a drink. He was and we worked our way through three of them at the Golden Age talking of Roger and Peggy, Joan and Don. I was finally – for the first time ever – entirely caught up with Mad Men. Vickieanne and I had just watched the most recent episodes and were biting our nails over the likely fates of our favourites. We had laughed together in delight at Peggy’s rolling skating to Roger’s organ-playing. Such hidden talents! Who knew? On Friday Erin is making me mac and cheese (because I more or less demanded it) and will help me, as ever, with my IT and Social Media quandaries while filling me in on the latest in her life. My leave-taking even pressed the often elusive Rob into an evening of hanging out and catching up in a way we haven’t in years.

So all normal, but not quite so.

Part of my ease around leaving is knowing that it’s just Italy – I can buy the stuff I need, I’ll get a local SIM card, I’ll find WiFi. It will be lovely, it will be Italy, but the day-to-day of communicating and feeding myself won’t be that hard. Basically much of what I can do here I can do there.

What I won’t be able to do there which I can do here is marvel at Vickianne’s exuberant joy, salivate over Erin’s AH-Mazing kitchen creations, lose uncountable hours to engaging conversations about nothing much at all with Jonathan, or enjoy all the easy warmth and comfort that is my friendship with Jim … in short for all the wonders of modern communications I will be without the tactile, phernomal presence of my friends.

I will be without the glasses of wine, the off-and-on planning for a get together and the last minute catch-ups; I’ll be without the hugs and laughter, the repeated themes, and occasional debates. I will share with them tales of my adventures but we will not share the adventures themselves. That is as it must be for the best sort of adventures – but it is for this I am trying not to think too much of the bigness and the length of my journey.

While I ride along alone in Europe,  here in Sydney there will be small joys and large, work angst, momentary pop culture interests taken up, new recipes trialled, big plans and small will be contemplated, made, and abandoned. Some of these I will hear about, of course, but not in person, not over a coffee, or while walking down King Street, not over a glass of wine or three somewhere in the City, nor with takeway Thai while watching Mad Men or during a bush walk in Royal National Park. All of that will await my return.

I guess part of the feelings that whirl and rise when I think about it come from the sure knowledge that if I return the exact same person as I am now I’ve failed to be truly open to the adventure. I will change; my friends will change, Sydney will change. I don’t fear the journey but I worry a little about the return.

Understanding the Schengen Zone

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I messaged the Italian and German consulates with questions about the Schengen Zone and I had a reply from Italy.

My understanding had been incorrect. I had thought that you get 90 days in 180 days –  in the sense that two clocks start upon entering a Schengen country: a 90 day clock and a 180 day clock. When you leave Schengen the 90 day clock stops but the 180 day clock keeps going. When those 180 days pass you get a fresh 90 days in the next 180. But no: its 90 days in the past 180 days. So today replaces 181 days ago and tomorrow will replace 180 days ago, etc.

Italy sent the link to a calculator and a detailed explanation. All of this I shared on a couple of bicycle touring Facebook groups. There I learned that due to agreements which pre-date Schengen Australians can get extra time in Germany and Denmark (I think) and someone shared a link to a Wikipedia page outlining all the visa requirements applicable to Australians everywhere.

In other news, having fully caught up my bookkeeping I’m amazed to find I may have nearly twice as much cash on hand when I pedal away than I had set as my necessary minimum for the trip. Crazy.