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.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
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!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Fish and Chip picnic with the Sherborne Abbey
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
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.

Leave a Reply