July 28, 2010
We woke up late in our little campsite in Nupend. With no other campers or little children running about or roosters crowing, our only wake up call came in the form of the sun warming our tent to sauna-like temperatures. It was one of those rare mornings where I woke up first, and I watched Joshua sleep peacefully with his hands folded over his chest. When he wakes up, his cheeks are bright red and his eyes are clear. He smiles when he sees that I been watching him sleep, and we say hello behind our palms to save the each other from our bad morning breath.
We broke camp and pedaled out of the gate, stopping along the way to talk with the owners of the little field. They wanted to know how many “pokes” we’ve had since our start, and crossing our fingers, we said none so far. Out of Nupend, we headed north towards Twekesbury. Today, the roads wound much as they did the days before: between high country hedges, along fields of munching sheep, and past hundreds of happy, saffron-colored cows. To the east, the hills of the Cotswolds swell, and to the west, the flood plains of the wide Severn stretch out for miles.
Every couple of miles, a small village peaks out of the hedges and fields with rosy stone and brick buildings. At the gate of each building, proud placards announce names like “The Rose Cottage,” “The Old Vicarage,” “The Cotswold View,” “The School House,” “The Little Thatch,” and “Sweet Briar.” As we pass by these beautiful, other-worldly buildings, we wonder at the craftsmanship of thatch roofs, semi-timbered construction, brick and mortar, and impossibly tall chimneys with oddly slanted roofs. Some buildings tilt back from the road or lean at precarious angles, and each village is anchored by a small stretch of green grass with a stone cross at the apex.
Following the small blue and red arrows for Cycle Route 45, we pass through the underside of Gloucester, an industrial “grotty” area with sooty buildings and plenty of yellow tape. On the other side, we met up with a wide canal toe path. After a couple of miles, Joshua ran over an ancient nail and popped a tire. So much for no pokes. While Joshua performed his operation, I foraged through the hedges for ripe blackberries and stained the front of my bike jersey with bright red juice. The day had warmed up quite pleasantly, and when Joshua’s bike was ready, we hopped back on for another 15 miles or so through lovely countryside, more cute villages, and on to Tewkesbury, where the River Avon and the Severn nearly meet, but not quite. There is a grand set of locks and damns here too, and I waited with the bicycles next to a sweet footbridge decked out in bright flowers while Joshua went in search of Fish and Chips.
When he returned, we feasted on breaded, fried fish over a bed of vinegar french fries. It was delicious, but there’s probably enough grease to power a small engine for a few hundred miles. Joshua, being Joshua, had also bought desert, and although I could barely squeeze in a few more bites, I had a bit of the most delicious chocolate muffin. It was still warm and it still had pieces of melty dark chocolate throughout. Yummy.
For our meal’s entertainment, we watched prettily painted narrow boats with flowers spilling over their roofs slowly chugging down the canal. Once we had finished, we wandered into the market to buy snacks for dinner and then headed in search of a campsite near town. Our first stop near the Abbey was unsuccessful (at 20 pounds per pop to pitch a tent!), and we ended up biking out of town a couple of miles to the Sunset View campsite. For our trouble, we paid the small fee of 5 pounds and even managed to finagle a shower out of the deal. We finished our evening (fittingly) watching the sunset and reading our books. When it got cold and dark, we buried ourselves inside the tent and I read late into the night, wrapped up in my novel, Bel Canto.
July 29, 2010
We woke up late again today, and by the time we had packed up and began biking out the gates, it was already 10 o’clock. Using our map, we headed northeast toward Stratford-upon-Avon, the birthplace of Shakespeare and our next port of call.
To begin, we steered through small one lane country roads and found an obscure little footbridge over some weirs and a canal. Although I’m not really sure what a weir is, I think it might have to do with islands, and before we had made our way to the other side, we had pushed our bikes through three or four little islands covered in masses of nettles. The last bridge over to the other side was actually a lock, and we ended up taking our panniers off and carrying our bicycles across.
On the other side, we reloaded our panniers and navigated through a series of gates to get to the
next road. It’s at moments like these, when we’re wandering through people’s backyards, over turnstiles, and across deserted islands that I sort of stop and think, “how on earth did I get here?” It can feel a bit precarious, but then I see a sign or I follow directions, and there we are, where we intended to be, in a town or a village thousands of miles away from my home, in a place that has always been home to its villagers. I don’t know how to describe it, but I guess sometimes I have this fear when I’m in the middle of nowhere that I’m actually NOWHERE. It’s a bit obtuse, because these places have been around forever and ever. Just because I’m lost doesn’t mean that things have moved or nothing exists beyond the boundaries of my vision. To me, they don’t exist because I haven’t seen them before, and it’s a little bit scary to constantly be on the edge of my world, at my Land’s End (if you will). Every time I feel like I might be on the verge of walking off the edge of the Earth, I come stumbling into a busy village or a bustling marketplace, and I realise that this place has already been found, found, found, and my Land’s End is extended. My world is bigger.
(I just went back and read that last paragraph, and I have a feeling that it makes absolutely no sense at all, but I’ll leave it in on the off chance that it does :))
Through Ekington and over Brendan Hill, we were treated to more beauteous views of the Cotswolds and the Avon River Valley. Although our path was a bit hillier than the day before, Joshua and I felt that we had finally found our groove: we cycled, oblivious to the passage of time or miles, talking for stretches and then silent for stretches, always admiring. The miles bleed into one another, and after a while, I ask how far we’ve gone, and I’m always surprised.
After Ekington, we passed through the Combertons on our way to Evesham, another canal side village just north of the Cotswolds. As we entered the town, we stopped to patron a small farm shop selling local fruits and veggies, and we settled on a small box of pluots (plum-apricot hybrids?) and a jar of Cotswold honey. Just a little further down, we purchased a little bread and cheese at the Spar, and we ate our picnic along the canal on a shaded walkway.
On our way out of Evesham, we passed through a town called Badsey (!) and headed into Stratford-upon-Avon on a dirt bike path than ran over the old rail road tracks. Just before we entered town, we stopped in at a cycle hire shop to see if they had maps, and we spent a little time chatting with a man who guides bicycle tours all over the country. (How do you get THAT job?)
In Stratford-upon-Avon we got spectacularly lost, but eventually, we found the main road and headed towards the direction of our intended campsite. Once again, we were thwarted by a mean old biddy who adamantly refused tents on her property (don’t ask me why – our little 4 by 6 foot is certainly non-intrusive), and we had to bike north four more miles to Newlands Camping and Caravaning Site next to an airfield. On our way there, we stopped for curry sauce, baby corn, string beans, and a bottle of wine, and once we set up camp, we cooked our little gourmet meal over our camp stove. Our neighbor came over to see what we were up to, and he shared that he had just been on a bike trip of his own from the southern coast of England to Morocco.
Once we had finished dinner, I finished Bel Canto and felt a bit sad (everyone died). Ever my valiant husband, Joshua hugged me while I fell asleep.
July 30, 2010
Today was our last day of riding for a bit, and Joshua and I woke up at 8 o’clock ready to go. By 9 o’clock, we were fully packed, fed, and ready to go, and we headed north towards the town of Wellesbourne. For about 10 miles, we rode on B roads with narrow shoulders and a few more cars, but a couple miles out of Royal Leamington Spa, we met up with a National cycle Route and enjoyed paved trails and fool-proof signage.
Apparently, Royal Leamington Spa is an old bath town with a lovely historic district and beautiful old hotels, but the cycle path circumnavigated the finer points and instead led us straight through the gritty industrial areas to meet up with the canal. Using a map Paul had provided us, we intended to follow the canals all the way to Long Buckby. The map indicated that the toe paths followed all the way through, and judging by the description, the were to be fairly wide and level.
For the first few miles along locks and damns, paddling ducks and swans, and sweetly chugging narrow boats, we thought we had lucked out and discovered the secret to blissful, flat English biking. Just outside of Long Itchington, we looked at the time and decided that we had plenty of room for a long lunch. The miles had slid by easily, and we anticipated an early arrival at Ruth and Paul’s in Long Buckby Wharf.
Off the toe path, we pedaled into the small village of Long Itchington and purchased a cache of bread, fruit, cheese, and humous for lunch. With cool temperatures and crunchy fallen leaves scattered about the church courtyard where we chose to picnic, things felt more autumnal than summery, and we donned our jackets to avoid the chill.
Back on the toe path, our level, gravel pathway turned into a well-trodden, bumpy dirt path, then a less trodden grassy path, and finally, a very much grown over shoulder with precarious patches that had washed out into the very dirty canal. Pedaling over bumps and cracks, we brushed through thorns and nettles, trying to avoid biking directly into the canal. Our pace slowed to nearly 4 miles per hour, and our legs erupted into a rash of nettle blisters and thorn scrapings. Less than 8 miles from Ruth and Paul’s, I got a flat tire, and when we stopped to change it, a young boy walked up and said to Joshua, “that’s the most pimped out bicycle I’ve ever seen! Where are you going?”
We told the boy that we were headed for John O’Groats and that we had come from Land’s End, and he said loudly, disbelievingly, “you’re mad!” Running off to share his discovery with a boatload full of children (and seemingly no parents), he ran back with another girl, and they interrogated us. Where do we sleep? In tents. What do you eat? Food we buy in the grocery store and cook on the camp stove. How far is it? 1200 miles. How long does it take? For some, less than 3 days, for us, nearly 40. Most importantly, why? Not sure, really. We wanted to see the country. Are you Canadian or American? American. Where do you live? And then: say root. Root. No say, route (pronounce root).
When Joshua released our punctured tube from its tire, the little boy whipped it out of his hands and submerged it into the dirty canal, explaining to us that this was the proper way to search for a “poke.” Not finding any tale-tell trail of bubbles, he handed it back to us and ran off with the little girl. Joshua and I looked at each other, a little bewildered, and then proceeded to pump up the tire and move on our way.
After a few more miles, we hit a series of stairs. Joshua, a bit fed up, bore most of the weight, and we soldiered them up and over. Before Daventry, we hit a tunnel, and on our detour, we got completely lost. As soon as we found our way back to the toe path, Joshua punctured his tire, and now really cross, we sat and performed our operations again.
Finally, after a few more sets of stairs, things began to look a bit more familiar, and trusting my instincts, I told Joshua that we would now be crossing the canal and heading up an alley way. Joshua looked at me a bit skeptically (I had confessed earlier that I thought I would have no idea how to get to Ruth and Paul’s) but followed me anyway. At the top of the road, I took a left, and TA-DA! Wharfdale. Ruth and Paul’s.
Propping our bikes up, we peered through the windows, and Paul came out to greet us. Ruth had just left to stock up on groceries from Tescos in Daventry, so we locked up our bikes and settled into the guestroom on the second floor. Dirty from miles of gravel, bramble, and changing tires, we took showers and dressed in our last clean outfits.
After a couple cups of rooibus tea, Ruth arrived, and we hugged hello. Apparently, the wheel had come off her grocery cart, and she had spent a few extra minutes gathering burst spinach leaves and cussing into the wind. Relieved to see that little has changed, I teased Ruth about her clumsy injuries over the years, and she complained that I would give her a complex. Packing away food, we set about making a dinner of grilled chicken and vegetables, gorging ourselves on cherries and gooseberries as we went. When dinner was ready, we ate ourselves silly and drank two bottles of Lebanese and Chilean wine. Pink and cheered by good company, we talked about New Orleans and schools and next steps. When we finished, we tumbled into our soft mattress and fell straight asleep.
July 31, 2010
This morning we accompanied Ruth and Paul to Billings, a little suburb outside of Northampton. While the two of them sorted out upholstery and fabric measurements, Joshua and I sat outside, basking in the English sun. On our way back, I rested my head in Joshua’s lap to avoid the creeping motion sickness. Not fully asleep, I was able to giggle when Ruth erupted into a series of a dozen miniature sneezes.
Back at Wharfdale, we gathered our rain jackets and sensible footwear for an amble about the countryside. With a map of public footpaths in tow, we set off along the canal.
Stopping here and there to explain the functions of locks or buy a newspaper, we made it to a bridge where we climbed into the fields. Along crops, over hedges and turnstiles, and through classic greens spotted in sheep, we kept up a steady chatter and enjoyed the sun flirting with the clouds. In all, each vista could have been one of Constable’s landscapes, and we couldn’t have asked for a nicer path or better weather.
One particular conversation to note: nowadays, sheep breeding has become a science, and those stages where a sheep is a lamb or a sheep is a mutton can be planned with lucrative finesse. In fact, breeders even keep track of which sheep mate with who, and one of the ways that they do this is by attaching little dye pouches to the chests of male sheep. During mating these pouches burst and stain the coats of the amorous sheep. Ruth and I laughed over the multi-colored stains of more promiscuous sheep and the ruined clandestine affairs of sheep love and intrigue.
At four miles, we stopped at The Saracen’s Head for lunch and cool drinks. Paul and Joshua ordered the bacon and cheese pie, while Ruth had a colorful salad and I selected a bowl of potato and leek soup with a mozzarella, pesto, and tomato sandwich to supplement. Everything was delicious, and we enjoyed our meal under an umbrella in the pebbled courtyard overlooking more fields bordered in hedges.
After we had finished eating, we exited Little Bington, admiring the golden stone work and thatched roofs along the way. Over another turnstile, we entered a field of cows, and they stopped chewing long enough to stare at us. From afar they look peaceful, but up close, their glares and formidable bodies are a bit unerring. I, for one, am not interested in crossing cow. This is just as well, seeing as you can be imprisoned and fined exorbitant amounts of money if you cross a cow in India.
Over a few more fields and past people walking their dogs, we stopped again at another pub for a jug of Pimms. Pimms is the quintessential summer drink, and drinking a glass is a little bit like drinking a spiked fruit salad – which, I’m sure you can all agree, is pure bliss.
The Pimms went straight to my head, and the next couple of miles went by quickly, walking through fields of rapeseed, wheat, and more sheep. At one point, we crossed a field with over a hundred grazing sheep, and by the time we had made it to the other side, we were all laughing at the silly cacophony of bleating sounds we left in our wake.
Past our last field, we met a road and walked briskly into Long Buckby to make the last bus to Long Buckby’s Wharf. Entering the village, we saw the bus just in time to jog and find our seats, breathless and rosy cheeked.
After 8 miles of hiking and a few drinks, we’re ready to take it easy for the rest of the night. For dinner, a large salmon trout awaits to be cooked in a fish kettle, a long, narrow saucepan, over the stove top, and on the side, we’ll have an assortment of vegetables gathered from every corner of this little kingdom. The wine, of course, shall be from our neighbor, France, and we will eat until we can’t eat anymore and then fall asleep, drugged by good food, good company, and lots of walking.