August 31, 2013

Bike-Touring England: (Part 4.)

This is the 4th (and last!) post about bike touring England. Read part 1, part 2 and part 3

We were in Chichester, England with our 2 folding bikes and a shoulder bag each, at the end of the bike festival, and we had no idea what to do next. Everytime we asked someone,

“Hey, where’s a good place to go bike touring?”

They answered invariably:

“Oh! Gosh! I don’t know, … I suppose you could go to the Dales,… or the Lake District. It depends on what you like.”

I hate any advice that includes “It depends on what you like” because, if I knew what I liked I wouldn’t really be looking for a suggestion. I would just ask “Hey, where it there lots of flat bike riding with views of the countryside and the shore?” When people ask for general advice, it’s clear that they don’t know much about the options and they’re willing to be flexible especially if you highly recommend a particular thing.biking-nava

It’s like when I asked my advisor for a research problem, he said “Well, what are you interested in?” and I felt like answering “I’m just not sure exactly, because I don’t know anything about anything!” But instead I just said “I’m interested in elliptic curves” and hoped he wouldn’t ask any further questions.

Anyhow, if the Brits knew of any good bike-rides they sure were being tight-lipped about it. We had to resort to picking a random place on a map. And we picked Bath because I read somewhere, in passing, that it was nice. (Turns out, millions of other people had heard the same thing)

So we biked to Bath, stopping first in Southhampton which was about 40 miles away, arriving at nightfall and crashing at the first hotel we saw. When we awoke, we discovered that Southampton was a really quaint town with 12th century walls and 21st century multi-colored rhinoceros sculptures everywhere.

biking through a ridiculously long railroad tunnel

biking through a ridiculously long railroad tunnel

After breakfast and a stroll we looked into a bookstore chain we had been noticing a lot, WH Smith’s, to find something to read only to discovered that they only have magazines & bestselling fiction! Very unimpressive.

Since it looked like rain, we rode 1 mile to the station and got on a train to Bath, intending to proceed further to Bristol and Cardiff while we were there.

Inside the train it was clean and quiet and the passing landscape was lovely despite the rain. The train was quite full for a Monday afternoon, I thought, and bags upon bags were piled on top of our Bromtpons  in the luggage rack. After about an hour the sun peeked out out and the hills came alive with smattering of twinkling cottages and villages. We were at Bath.

our Brompton bikes fit neatly onto the luggage racks

our Brompton bikes fit neatly onto the luggage racks

Not 5 minutes off the train and it started to rain again, this time so hard and so suddenly that there was a great deal of surpsise and laughter as pedestrians sought refuge under nearby awnings and storefronts. As we were waiting for the rain to subside, we watched with interest as a city worker in a poncho and wellies drew a hose from a tank in the back of his little car and began to water some nearby flowers. As the rain dripped off my nose and gaping mouth, he calmly and lovingly sprinkled each flower pot making sure to drench every little bud. It was too good to be true.

When the rain subsided, as it usually does after 20 minutes in this place, we had a look around town and realized that Bath got its name from the fact that it was a bath town- like a spa. How stupid. Things have such obvious names in England: “Green Park”, “Church Road”, “Bath”.

Anyhow, there were such throngs of tourists that we decided to leave right after some lunch, beers and some peeking around. Bath is quite a beautiful old place. The Abbey and Roman baths are spectacular but it was the lovely glass souvenirs and “artisan” gift shops (courtesy of our Chinese friends) that really made us flee.

We got on the little towpath along the canal. They’ve turned it into part of a 15-mile bike path to Bristol and it’s such a darling path with lots of little bridges going over the canal which have polite signs posted to them warning you to duck your head.train-platform-england

England had a bit of a “Canal Rage” in the 1700s and they build 4,000 miles of canals mostly to transport coal. Every canal has a “tow path” which is an adjacent, parallel dirt road that was used to tug boats along with a mule or by hand. The English have done a clever thing which is to pave these paths and turn them into bike and pedestrian paths and they are just the loveliest roads to bike on. Another large source of bike-paths is defunct railroad routes which they have paved over. They have even begun this excellent practice in the United States and it’s so clever because the land is already public, the route is already cleared and paving it brings joy to thousands of  bikers.

Anyhow, the canal path from Bath to Bristol was one of the most beautiful little stretches we had seen so far in England and the moment we got on it the skies unleashed a horrendous rain which lasted nearly the entire trip. We stopped to catch our breath under a leaking bridge and I was so brave as to take my camera out for a quick picture of Ben in his rain garbage bag poncho.

The whole thing was quite depressing but for some reason Ben was in a chipper mood and he tried to cheer me up by singing songs and telling stories in a high-pitched British voice about a naught boy named Billy.

“Billy’s parents didn’t much care for him”

and so on. I couldn’t help but laugh but I was soaked to the bone and grouchy.

The tow-path of a canal

The tow-path of a canal

As we neared Bristol the bike traffic picked up in the opposite direction that we were going: commuters leaving Bristol. It was 4pm. As we got into town we saw bikers converging onto the path from all possible directions. It must be so nice to live in a place where so many commute by bike. We got to the town center and stayed at the Bristol Hotel for 89 quid, a steal.

We tried to find something British to do but we ended up watching a film about people living in NY which made us homesick. The theater was really opened-minded like and artsy; we got ginger wine and crackers before the movie . The theater goers were dressed up in cardigans and white pants and we joked that there was a “discussion room” where people could discuss the movie afterward. During the movie we enjoyed hearing gasps as the racier parts- some people are still decent enough to be shocked by this stuff.

After the movie, we got ice cream and free touring advice from the ice-cream man who said that South Wales was exactly like England -that the people and the culture was the same and he could never see a difference when he went there.  But he had no other suggestions so we stuck with our plan to go to Cardiff.

The next morning we went to Cafe Kino for vegan breakfast and stuffed our faces with bean burger and vegetarian sausage. Vegan restaurants are a real treat for me because I just feel totally at ease eating whereas, at other establishments there’s a tiny bit of worry in the back of my mind, that some gross animal meat juice has dripped into my food. Wish I didn’t worry but I do.

The beautiful Severn Bridge

The beautiful Severn Bridge

Out of all the cities we visited I really like Bristol and I was sad to leave it. We got on the “Avon Cycleway”  which began in a dark, shady forest; a dirt path along an old stone wall. Soon the landscape turned to grassy marshes & farms. Sheep and cow abounded. Sheep are adorable, I want one!

We crossed the Severn Bridge which goes over the Severn River (someone on the British naming committee needs to be shot) into Wales. Although we heard that Wales was no different than England we noticed a discernible unfriendliness: half of the people failed to return our greeting and motorists attempted to run us off the road! On one street, a fat and ugly Welsh driver came within a millimeter of me and yelled

“This is a one way street ya [redacted]!!”

I could see it now, a bicyclist lying in a pool of blood, police arrive and nod at each other and agree with the driver,

“Yes Sir! You certainly had the right of way! He had no business being in your lane, you’ve done the right thing!”

I felt like they would kill me, just to prove a point, those Welsh sheep[redacted]. They even veered onto the shoulder of the wide roads to try to run us off! Pardon the language but the whole thing really made me so mad. The English are so kind and there’s rarely a harsh word or honk, even if you’re trying to cross an incredibly dangerous traffic circle.

Large power lines are ubiquitous in Wales

Large power lines are ubiquitous in Wales

Anyhow, we stopped at the first town which was Chepstow’, a nice little place on a steep hill. All the roadsigns were in Welsh as well as English. What a funny looking language Welsh is, with phrases like “Cymry yn golygu” and it just sounds terrible made-up. Any language that has the word “golygu” in it has to be fake, don’t you agree?

Chepstow has a nice castle which is the oldest stone structure in the UK, built in 1067 AD, they said. We went for a short ride about town and ran into an old, very thick stone wall behind some new houses. Upon inspection, we noticed a plaque that said that the wall was from the 13th century. Imagine having a 13th century wall in your backyard?



We took the train to Cardiff, which is the capital of Wales. After finding a reasonably-priced hotel, we went to the Everyman Theater to see “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” A crowd had gathered in front of the theater which consisted of a couple of seats and makeshift walls in the middle of the park. It was such a diverse crowd- much more so at the theater in Bristol a night earlier. There were lesbians, old people, some sweet couples on a date all dressed up. I heard snippets of conversation in Welsh which was amusing. Some folks had brought champagne in coolers and grapes in tupperware and made a picnic of them before the show.

The play started at precisely 8pm and it was so different and more wonderful than other Shakespeare productions I’d ever seen. There was none of that haughty, self-aware reciting of the lines. Every word performedIt was done so naturally, it hardly felt like an old play, even though they didn’t mess with the original language much. It was also hilarious. I don’t know if the jokes are standard- having never seen or read “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” before but it was so clever and the actors so lovable. The costumes and the lighting were amateurish but this only added to the charm.

During the “interval” (intermission) the audience was invited to have a Pimm’s at the bar across the street and we partook in that merriment. We had such a wonderful time overall, I’m so glad we went.

At the Everyman "Theater"

At the Everyman “Theater”

Cardiff is a great city. There are lots of really cool bars and micro-breweries. The streets are clean and the people seem quite happy. I began to forgive the Welsh their one or two nasty drivers who try to kill well-meaning cyclists.

The next day the weather was “overcast and wet day with persistent rain across most of the country” so we had pretty dismal hopes of biking. Still, we got on our bikes in the light rain and got on the Taff Trail, first passing Cardiff Castle and continuing along the Taff River. The Taff was serene and banked by grazing pastures. After a few miles we got to Coch Castle, a 19th century Gothic Revival which looked almost too perfect- like a Disney castle.

They wanted four quid, thirty five to get into the castle but it was free to take a peek from the front gate so we opted for the latter and went on our merry way, ponchos flying as we sped back down the hill. I squeezed hard on the useless brakes, heart pounding, clinging to the handlebars with all energy.

After Coch, we made our way to Caerphilly, which we still don’t know how to pronounce, along a beautiful wooded bike path, doing our best to avoid the larger puddles. The castle at Caerphilly is the grandest and most intact one we saw on our whole trip. It had a proper moat and drawbridge and lots of turrets. We stopped at the nearby supermarket which was across the street from the Castle and ate our lunch of crackers and hummus on a bench, turning our heads from side to side: Castle, supermarket, Castle, supermarket. It boggled my mind.

Caerphilly was the first place we felt was really Welsh. The announcement in the stores were in Welsh first, then English. Lots of older folk were speaking Welsh and the people were just a bit….off. A number of people seemed mentally unstable and the supermarket bathroom smelled like homeless, which has the same smell all over the world.

The Castle at Caerphilly

The Castle at Caerphilly

In any case, we’d had just about enough of the bloody rain and we decided to take a train to Oxford as our last stop before going back to London and then home. We got on a dinky, stinky local Welsh train that rattled all the way to Cardiff where we got on a clean, fast English train. Unfortunately a Welsh woman had, er, relieved herself right there in her seat and we had to change cars. The English folk were too polite to even wrinkle their noses but there was no way I was going to sit with that smell for 2 hours.

Moving cars was a huge ordeal involving two bikes and our baggage. Ben did all the work and rewarded himself with a beer which you can buy on the train from a vendor passing through the cars, and which he promptly spilled all over his exhausted self.

Coch Castle. Very disney-like.

Coch Castle. Very disney-like.

Back over the Severn River, well, under this time and across the country, we arrived in Oxford to a throng of tourists. We found a hotel on a quiet street and had a look about. Tourism aside, the city is very old and charming -it’s just like in the movies. The architecture is uniformly gothic, full of white stone buildings with colored glass windows, manicured courtyards and darling turrets. We saw a poster for “The Merry Wives of Windsor” and we’re suckers for Shakespeare so we went to see it, after having a Pimms at a local pub which also had popcorn.



The play was bizarre. And hilarious. There were “gansta”s and cellphones and a slow motion fight (to the chariots of fire theme) which had us laughing to tears. But it was almost too much. Over the top. Another weird thing was that half of the audience was Chinese. I don’t know what they expected to get out the experience. The must have gotten the strangest impression about Shakespeare plays. I do hope they saw at least one other while they were in England.

Next day: London & our flight home.

This concludes the telling portion of our trip. If you’re still reading that’s amazing. Now I’d like to give a tiny bit of advice:

Advice: Go bike touring! It doesn’t have to be in England and you don’t have to camp (we didn’t) but traveling on a bike is the most thrilling, adventurous thing you can do. You don’t have to be in your 20’s, we saw a couple of awesome older fold on the bike trails. A folding bike is really handy because you can bring it on a train, in a hotel, even into a restaurant without much trouble. Pack light. Take your best friend. Do a minimal amount of research but leave plenty up to chance. Be safe. Pack a reflective vest, lights, ponchos, and always wear a helmet. Use google maps but also try to get local bike maps which are much better. It’s fun to get lost but not when you’re really tired. A GPS device with preloaded maps is quite useful. Carry chocolate and crackers with you. Don’t hate the rain.  Try new things. Be Merry. Be nice to your parents. Whoops, I’m on an advice tirade. Should probably stop here!


3 Responses to Bike-Touring England: (Part 4.)

  1. Rivka says:

    Really liked this series!

  2. Neil Hickson says:

    I really enjoyed reading your posts. As an English person I always find it fascinating to hear what other cultures think of us.. I ride a Brompton to commute to work (in conjunction with a very rattly train), and I am trying to persuade my wife that we should use Bromptons for touring.
    If you ever come to the UK again try coming further North. Generally speaking, the further North you travel the more friendly the people and the (slightly) slower the pace of life. Being a Lancastrian, I would recommend Lancashire, the Leeds to Liverpool canal would be as good a place to,start as any if you like canal towpaths.
    Thanks again for your writing.
    Neil Hickson

  3. Janet Dowle says:

    Hi I really loved your blog, and it’s nice to read about places we have cycled. If anyone wants to do something similar you can cycle all the way from Brighton to Dorset via a range of really cool ferries, including my personal favourite the Pink ferry from Hamble to Warsash. We are currently touring round Spain and other parts of Europe taking our trusty Bromptons with us, but I am very impressed at some of the places you have taken yours, especially that track South from Guildford. I do hope you found better food than that horrible vegan breakfast, mind you that is like judging all American food by New York hot dogs! We aim to drive down through Canada, America and Mexico next year. Should we bother taking the Bromptons or will we get mown down?

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