Biking from Canterbury to Belfast
Bob Moen's Tour de U.K. 1998
Wednesday, May 27th, 1998 - Dispatch #1
Truro, Cornwall, England
Thanks to United Airlines, my bike and I arrived in one piece. I did, however, feel a bit like a freed sardine after the ten-hour flight. The plane was one of the new Boeing 777s. You know, the one that had a difficult time being certified for travel over the ocean because it only has two engines. If I recall correctly, the FAA changed some rules so in the end Boeing could prove it could fly with just one working engine. You can bet I was a bit nervous when the pilot announced we were in the Arctic Circle over the North Atlantic. Hello, Leonardo DeCaprio?
So far everything has gone like clockwork. Although even today, my own personal clock is still trying to catch up. From Heathrow I took a bus to take a train to catch a train to Penzance. No problem. I caught the last train of the day with ten minutes to spare. The six-hour train ride gave me plenty of time to play "is it real or is it Memorex?" This is where I try to discern where I am by just looking at the scenery. Could this be the United States? Yes, it could be. Except for the lack of woods, the English countryside reminded me a lot of Wisconsin - rolling hills almost totally dedicated to agriculture. But upon closer inspection, it wasn't Wisconsin at all. Hedgerows. Everywhere I looked the countryside was divided up by hedgerows and stone fences. Frankly, there seemed to be no rhyme or reason for the shape of the fields. By U.S. standards they were small--about the size of a football field and were mostly used for grazing. The other notable thing about English farm country is that unlike Wisconsin or any place else in the US, there are no farmhouses. Apparently the farmers live in the villages and commute on their tractors.
It's when I looked at the structures did I realize that we aren't in Kansas anymore, Toto. The houses didn't have eves. I mean with all the rain, you'd think the English would understand the benefit of standing beneath an eve. Go figure. And as long as I'm running down the English housing stock, what's with all the row houses? Even if a single house is built, its built as a row house with no windows at either end just waiting to be attached to another house. This certainly limits the architectural possibilities.
So anyway, I arrived at Penzance about seven o'clock on Sunday evening (May 24th). I immediately secured a room above a pub close enough to the train station that I could wrestle my bike, securely packed in a special shipping box, up to my room. By noon Monday I had the bike assembled. I shipped the empty bike box by train up to Thurso, Scotland, and hit the road. Oops, bad term - by noon I began my bicycle tour.
My plan was to follow the coast for about 15 miles to Lands End where I could begin the tour in earnest, but I took a wrong turn at Mousehole and ended climbing about 300 feet up to the plateau. Oh well, the best laid plans of mice and men... this demonstrates one of the basic tenants of bicycle touring: be real and be flexible, because sometimes your route, all events thereafter, are determined by chance, such as which way has the smoother pavement when you come to a fork in the road.
Lands End, England is one great commercial enterprise. First they lure you there with large signs advertising "free admission" then they charge you three pounds to park your car.
The place was crawling with tourist families with kids yelling, "I want to go into Black Bart's Cove, I want to see the mermaid lady." And poor dad, still smarting over the parking, forced to reach deeper into his pocket.
I asked one of the employees to take my picture in front of the signpost that said "John O'Grotes - 754 miles." "Yes, sir. But I have to use my camera. You'll receive the print in the mail in about ten days. Do you want an eight by ten? Perhaps a half dozen wallet size photos for your friends?"
Thanks to a fellow tourist I got my picture, and with my camera. I spent the rest of the day riding along the Cornish Atlantic coast. It was fantastic, beautiful and hilly. But most striking was its "ancientness". Many of the fields, stone fences and hedgerows were 3,000 years old, according to an historical marker!
Here are some excerpts about Cornwall from an historical guide:
Cornwall is a land apart, yet also part of England. Extraordinarily rich in historic sites yet invariably always a poor county. A beautiful land yet more dug over and dug into than almost anywhere else on earth.
This is a story profoundly influenced by two abiding physical characteristics: Cornwall is on the edge of the Atlantic seaboard surrounded on all but one side by the sea. Its geology of slate and granite does not produce rich agricultural land, but durable building stone and an abundance of minerals.
Being on the outer edge of England, but at the heart of Atlantic Europe, has resulted in an historic cultural heritage different form the rest of England. Mild climate, Celtic affinities, coastal connections, mineral wealth, and isolation are all intermingled in aspects of Cornwall's heritage. The history of Cornwall is so often one of domination by others and defiance to outsiders, and an often uneasy relationship with England and central authority.
I spent Monday night (May 25th) in St. Ives. An artist colony with the famous Tate Art Museum, and somewhat of a tourist trap. To my chagrin, Monday was a "bankers holiday" and the city folks had migrated to the country to appreciate the outdoors, and the in-doors of pubs. I had seen a shocking level of public drunkenness the night before in Penzance, but St. Ives seemed was more of a civilized place, with mom and dad in the pub, and their little 13 year old boys and girls standing on the street smoking cigarettes.
In St. Ives I stayed at the Ten Steps B&B. It was great. It was clean, wasn't decorated in "second-hand chic" and run by a lovely, warm woman named Lydia Dean-Barrows (tel 01736 798222). So the die is cast: for 15 pounds I can expect a threadbare room above a pub whereas 25 pounds gets me comfort and hospitality.
It was this morning, as I was leaving St. Ives, that I once again ran into a fellow tourer who I had first met at Lands End the day before. This guy, Francois Sindani of Brussels, makes me look like a pansy. Here, I'm on my fancy lightweight bike, sleeping in B&B's and whining about expending too much energy because I can't find a filling station with an air compressor powerful enough to make me tire rock-hard. Francois is 66 years old and "for budgetary reasons" camps out at night. He rides an inexpensive, second hand mountain bike held together with duct tape and carries his gear in a backpack. He's been on the road for a week and intends to go another month or two!
Where am I now? Quite comfortable situated in the Internet Caf in Truro. We here, all six of us, just had a "moment." For the past fifteen minutes, our concentration was interrupted by a loud, negative female customer. It was after she left we all breathed a sigh of relief and finally acknowledged each other by making snide remarks about the woman. The fellow next to me, perhaps understanding I was an American said, "the worst kind of English woman." Or perhaps, he didn't know I was an American and the English just make reference to themselves as a matter of course?
For the past two hours while I've been writing and drinking coffee, the Internet Caf has been playing Frank Sinatra music. How strange, to be in England, yet reminded of the fact that I was raised in Las Vegas, where frank was the "Chairman of the Board". But with Las Vegans it was a love-hate relationship. He was the entertainer who could bring in the "higher rollers" who line everyone's pockets, yet when he punched a pit boss who caught him cheating, it was the pit boss who got fired (sorry, Frank, but that's how I remember the story). By the way, www.lasvegassun.com has a lot of great Frank Sinatra pictures. Thanks to it, I now have the Rat Pack performing at the Sands Hotel in 1960 as my computer wallpaper.
Time to find a B&B. I hope it doesn't storm tomorrow like they predict. Stay tuned.
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