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Bob Moen

Biking from Canterbury to Belfast
Bob Moen's Tour de U.K. 1999
Tuesday, May 26, 1999 - Dispatch #3

Greetings from Limerick, Ireland
I arrived last night after a day of trains and ferry from Merthyr Tydfil, Wales. I had booked a room in advance at a hotel so I was not in a panic when the train arrived at midnight. Today is a rest, writing and sightseeing day for me. I'm even having my dirty clothes washed--no longer will I have to sit alone at the end of the bar.

Tomorrow I'll begin following the West Irish coastline north to Galway and beyond. Tour 1999 is going fine. Both my bike and my body crank out the miles without serious problem--350 miles so far. Like most great Irish writers I stopped for a pint of Guinness on the way to the Internet cafe (Websters--quite nice, it gets a cyber thumbs up from me). The pub where I had my pint, a small one in downtown Limerick was just getting its weekly delivery of Guinness. I counted 30 kegs! Thirsty, these Irish. As any Irishman will tell you (and often does), Guinness does not travel well. I agree. It is tastier here than in the U.S. I think it has more kick too...I've got a little buzz going.

Getting back to where I left off last Thursday: On Friday I rode bike and train north to Shropshire, an area I've wanted to visit for years because it is the cradle of the industrial revolution. It is symbolized by the still standing iron bridge which spans the River Severn at the community of Iron Bridge. There, I found a perfectly adequate room (18.50 pounds) in the attic of a 1840 B&B. My room overlooked a 1750 tollhouse from which, as the B&B owner explained to me, a rope would be strung across the river and barges not permitted to pass until they paid a toll. That evening I ate at a pub voted "best pub food in Shropshire". It just happened to be next door to my B&B and, yes, the chicken curry was great. I spent Saturday reliving the Industrial Revolution in the various museums of the Iron Bridge Gorge.

Shropshire has been called the cradle of the Industrial Revolution for it was at Coalbrookdale near the Gorge that Abraham Darby perfected the smelting of iron with coke in 1709. This was a big deal because coke was more efficient and no longer did the iron industry have to rely upon the local forests, which soon played out, to produce the needed charcoal. The Coalbrookdale ironworks, which became the largest works of any kind in England, produced the first iron wheels, the first iron rails, the first iron boat, the first iron aqueduct, the first iron-framed building and, in 1780 where the town of Ironbridge grew up, the world's first iron bridge. The worth of iron as a building material was proven when within a year a flood had washed away all the other bridges.

Thanks to the ice age of 15,000 years ago Iron Bridge Gorge became ground zero of the industrial revolution. During the ice age a glacier blocked a river, forced the water to cut the 100-foot deep gorge into the surrounding plane as it found a new route to the ocean. In doing so, it revealed and made easily accessible rich iron, coal, clay and limestone deposits--all the resources necessary to turn England's agricultural-based economy on its ear.

By the way, I learned that cast iron (poured as a liquid into molds) takes compression well making it ideal for structures and wheels, compared to wrought iron (think blacksmith) which takes shock and stretching well making it ideal for nails and nuts. Did you know that the smelted iron is called "pig iron" because as it flowed from the blast furnace into multiple channels it resembled a sow suckling its young?

The industrial revolution got a "full head of steam" with the development of steam power at the beginning of the 19th century. The first primitive steam engines pumped water from the mines and air into blast furnaces, but as advancements were made, steam engines began powering factories and ultimately railways. A new England of textiles, iron, steel and railways came into existence along side the old England of castles, cathedrals and stately homes. There you go, two hundred years of English industrial history in a nutshell.

Saturday afternoon I continued my celebration of the 19th century when I caught a ride on the premier steam-powered tourist line in England, the Severn Valley Railway. I had visions of being pulled through the lush English countryside by the famous Flying Scotsman while I sat in the lounge car drinking gin-and-tonics with a knowledgeable rail fan named Nigel or Colin who would explain why British steam locomotives don't have head lamps (seems crazy to me). Well, I did sit next to Nigel and Colin, but they were three and four years old. And their mother would not let them have gin-and-tonics. It turned out that I had stumbled into the once-a-year kidŐs day on the Severn Valley Railway. Instead of the Flying Scotsman, Thomas the Tank Engine powered my train. My coach was packed with pre-schoolers. All in all it wasn't a bad trip but I must say that I STRONGLY object to painting Thomas the Tank Engine faces on those fine old steam locomotives.

The train ride did give me the chance to observe English kids in action. There is no doubt: they are better behaved than are American kids. For that matter, I've noticed the same things about English dogs. They are better behaved than American dogs. A similar thing can be said about English adults too. The English society is much more self-regulated than is the U.S. Seldom did I see police, yet it seems utterly safe. Rather than a me-me society, the English are more of a we-we society. Ironically, though, the English don't seem to like each other very much. In fact, it seems to me that they go to great lengths to pretend that others do not exist. They avoid eye contact with strangers by having perfected the look-right-through-you glance. Here's what I saw/experienced over-and-over again: two people meet on a path in the country. They pass without smiling, nodding or saying hello to each other. I have a hard time with this because it is so different than the way people relate to each other in the U.S.

I spent Saturday night in Stourport on River Severn. The 1740 Butler House (19 pounds) was spotless, well maintained and perfectly furnished with antiques. It overlooked a canal boat basin which would have been considerably more picturesque if the basin had not been turned into a parking in the 1940s. "Soon to be restored," assured the B&B owner. Fortunately another basin remained intact a block away, so I got to see a fifty or so long, skinny canal boats floating about. On Sunday morning I headed off into a STRONG headwind to the town of Hay-on-Wye. That was one rough day. Still I clocked 72 miles, which I figure, translates into about a 100-mile day without the wind. I came to realize how effective 6-foot hedgerows are at blocking wind (views too, but I didn't care). But there were too few. That seemed to confirm what I've read: although the U.K. still has thousands of miles of hedgerows, in the last 50-years 150,000-miles of them have been destroyed. That's enough to travel around the world 6 times! Fortunately, new hedgerows are still being planted: the hawthorn(?) seedlings are protected inside 2-foot tall plastic tubes that are tied to stakes. Each soon-to-be hedgerow had two rows of seedlings, spaced about 1-foot apart. I wonder how quickly they grow? How long they live?

I did take one break from my 72-mile grind, when I took a tour of Whitby Court ruins, a 200-room country home that was destroyed by fire in 1937. Its fountain was so large and impressive that it deserved to be in Paris, yet in 1860 someone had enough wealth to build it in the English countryside.

After spending the night at Hay-on-Wye, an attractive village of 1300 people and 36 bookshops (see www.litfest.co.uk), I fought more wind, now mixed with rain, to visit my new friend Mr. Evans in Brecon, Wales. We met last year when I visited his print/book/framing shop. During the year we had emailed each other and he invited me back for tea, so I took him up on his offer. We repaired to his apartment above his shop where I enjoyed the salmon sandwiches prepared by his wife. He gave me a quick lesson in antique prints and Welsh politics. The conversation was quite timely because it is today that the Welsh assembly meets for the first time. No longer will all decisions pertaining to the Welsh nation be made by the Parliament in London. My view is that the Welsh are at risk of shooting themselves in their collective foot. Too much effort is being made to restoring the Welsh language, a language that is all but extinct. All government signs are posted in both Welsh and English. The Welsh activists even got the government to broadcast a television station in Welsh. At a time when they are striking out on their own as a nation in the global economy, the Welsh are at risk of chasing away prospective international relationships by turning their back on the English language.

WEDNESDAY Limerick was jumping last night. The European Football Championship match between Man(chester) United and Byren Munich was televised at 8PM. The pubs were full. The match ended with tremendous excitement when in the last moments the English team came from behind to win. The pub where I watched the match went ballistic. Its interesting that for all the animosity between the English and the Irish, that everyone in the pub was 100% behind the English team. At the bar I met a 40-year-old Irish fellow named Gerry who made two very interesting points. 1) Limerick is known for its pretty women (I agree). 2) In the past 2 years heŐs noticed a drastic, troubling change in the social/sexual mores of young Irish women. As an example, he pointed to a 20-year old woman who had a large tattoo on her well-exposed breast.

I drifted over to another pub to listen to live music. The group, CATCHER AND THE RYE, were great and the place was hopping. On the way back to my B&B I stopped at a diner for a burger. On the jukebox the Stones echoed my thoughts, WHAT A DRAG IT IS GROWING OLD.

Dispatch #4

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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