Thursday 18th May. Greenwich to Chertsey. About 63 km.
I was in England and had time to ride for a couple of weeks. I’d never really contemplated touring in the UK; I was too used to the fast and fairly aggressive driving and didn’t think it would be much fun. But I’d bought a guidebook, London to Land’s End by Eric van der Horst (I recommend it highly!), and it seemed that it was possible to cover a considerable distance sticking to dedicated cycle paths. So I decided to give it a go.
As usual, I was off to a late start. Two thirty in the afternoon, with a threatening sky and London to cross before dark. A slight detour brought me to the Dog and Bell, a quick pint of ‘Hop Music,’ making for an auspicious start to the afternoon.
Then, off in earnest. Off in circles. Under the thick grey skies, no sun or shadows, my sense of direction had deserted me. 45 minutes later, I recognised where I was: 100 metres from the Dog and Bell. Bravely, I resisted the temptation to go for a second pint and to re-reset the voyage.
This time, I located the Q1 (Quietway 1, a bike route up to the London Eye in the centre of London) and followed it more carefully this time. Steady drizzle now. Increasing. Passed the London Eye and on to Westminster Bridge with a wet view over the Thames at Big Ben striking 4:15 pm. I had been vaguely familiar with the route so far and I hadn’t used the guide. But I was now heading into unknown territory.
The guidebook was very detailed, overly so, and if I’d followed it religiously I would have been stopping every minute to find the next turning. Not ideal in busy central London rush-hour traffic. The grey skies were darker now so no help with direction there. I settled for going in the ‘rightish’ direction, not worrying about the official route. Along the edge of Hyde Park, a glimpse of Buckingham palace, along the river past Chelsea bridge and then crossing the river on Putney (I think) Bridge. The official route followed three sides of a circle but I opted for the more direct and heavily trafficked short-cut. The rain was coming down in earnest now but it was warm enough, I was out riding and I continued happily along. I stopped at an Evan’s Cycle store, looking for some temporary shelter from the rain and a headlamp that took regular AA or AAA batteries but all they had had internal lithium batteries and I didn’t think I’d be able to recharge those conveniently. Back on road, I tried using my phone for navigation and quickly learned that raindrops play havoc with a touchscreen, a dozen fingers touching in different areas at the same time. Voice worked, though, recognised ‘Chertsey’ which I’d been unable to type due to my wet screen, and gave me a direction to head in. I followed a path along the south bank of the river which, I’m sure, would have been very pleasant on a warm sunny afternoon. When the path was almost pitch black, I stopped to dig out my old weak headlamp and a passing cyclist stopped to enquire that everything was fine. He gave me some directions, then kindly lead me through a more complicated section. He was wearing a high-tech helmet that incorporated left turn, right turn and brake lights. He turned off on his way home and I continued along the path to Chertsey. Of course, it wasn’t quite that simple. I couldn’t find the bridge over the river, going down quiet lanes through marshland that ended at solitary residences and retracing my steps several times. I paused at a fire station for directions but there was no-one in attendance. Eventually, I found a road bridge and asked some patrons sitting under umbrellas outside a pub if they knew where there was a campsite. They thought there was one a mile down the road on the right. I continued down to road until I saw a man walking his dog. Yes, I was almost at the campsite but it’d be locked shut at this time of night (10:30 pm) he thought. There was an unofficial campsite that anglers occasionally used, on this side of the river but past the bridge. Well, I’d try the official one first…
Dropping from a muddy verge into a puddle in the road, the bike skidded out from under me and I hit the road hard. My handlebar bag deposited it’s contents (guidebook, camera, phone, …) in the puddle and I scraped both knees and one elbow and slightly sprained my other wrist. Damn it! I felt pretty incompetent.
The campsite wasn’t far now. It was indeed locked up for the night but the side gate was unlocked so I crept past dark caravans until I could see somewhere to pitch the tent. Pretty much the first time on my bike since before the winter in Canada, seven months ago. I never learn.
Friday 19th May. Chertsey – Staines – Chertsey. And again. 40 km.
I realised I had to sort a few things out. I paid for two nights at the campground, then rode along the river to Staines. The unladen bike felt nice, it wasn’t actually raining, and the ten km into Staines was easy and pleasant. Fun. In Staines, I stopped at a convenience store (selling mainly hard liquor and kid’s candy) and asked where I could buy a wall-outlet-usb adapter. The south Asian man handed one over, just what I was looking for. Would he charge my phone, I asked? No problem. Then I wandered to the shopping centre and went into PCWorld where I could have bought an identical wall-outlet-usb adapter for four times what I had just paid. Then, at Maplins, I bought a usb-chargeable power bank. When fully charged, I could charge my phone off this a few times.
I spent an hour or more over a coffee at Costa while it stormed and hailed. It gave me a chance to get started with charging the power bank. Then, not having eaten yet, I popped into a pub for a meal and a pint before collecting my now-fully charged phone and riding back to camp in the pleasant early evening sunshine.
Back at the campsite, I noticed that I no longer had my wallet. Not too serious a problem; it only had a few pounds in it and a Visa card about to expire. But l’d have to cancel my card. I rode back to Staines, eyes open along the trail, then went to the convenience store where I’d charged the phone, but no luck. Checked at the pub where I’d eaten; maybe it had dropped out of my pocket when I was sitting down. There was security at the doors now, checking ID for young people out for a night on the town, and I asked if anyone had handed in a wallet. The guard took me inside to talk to the manager who asked my name, then fetched my wallet from a back office. The guard told me that it had been handed in by a young woman who’d found it outside the pub. Wonderful, reassuring honesty. The guard said she came in often so I left my email address and asked to guard to let the woman know that I was very grateful and would reward her honesty if she got in touch. (She never did.)
Saturday 20th May. Chertsey to (almost) Reading. 63 km.
A pleasant day, back to Staines and then continuing along the river to the Runnymede Locks. (Runnymede is where the Magna Carta was signed). Some drab housing estates interspersed with nice countryside. A steep uphill path, away from the river for a while, had me panting and pushing.
While I was pausing, a cyclist came gently down the hill and stopped for a chat. He lived in Ireland and was on his way to a family reunion. Cycling, of course. He was riding a Thorn touring bike with dropped handlebars but also has a expedition bike with Rohloff gearing like mine. He was just back from four months riding in South East Asia and was heading off soon for a tour of South Africa. He was in his mid-70s but certainly didn’t look it. Maybe it’s having a wife thirty years younger than him that keeps him youthful!
At the top of the climb is the Runnymede Air Forces Memorial, a memorial for the more than 20,000 Allied airmen and women whose bodies were never recovered after World War II. My father, who died five years ago at the age of 95, was a navigator/wireless operator in Sunderland flying-boats serving out of Alexandria in Egypt. This memorial was converted from a convent in 1965. My mother has no recollection of visiting the memorial but I’m sure my dad would have come here. A very peaceful and contemplative place.
I notice that I’m not making much progress. I keep stopping to enjoy the surroundings and to get a feel for the country I left almost forty years ago. This trip is ‘slow cycling’ at its finest and the journey definitely feels more important than the destination. The countryside is beautiful and the people seem open and friendly. Old stone buildings and magnificent churches. And pubs everywhere!
The route, much easier to follow now London is left behind, certainly doesn’t take the shortest path but it avoids much of the traffic and passes through some of England’s gems. Windsor Park is large and quiet, even on this Saturday afternoon.
Back down to the River Thames again at Eton. Eton is famous for its ‘public’ (what would be called private anywhere else in the world) school where the over-privileged are ‘educated.’ This is where future right-wing politicians learn that they are special and worthy of their position at the top of England’s still rampant class system. These are the politicians who vote down laws proposing the rights of people to humane living conditions, to restrict funding for social housing, and are nowhere to be seen when eighty people die in a fire spreading rapidly through a high rise tower. I am not a fan.
Eton is soon left behind and the riding is flat and easy. I resisted the temptation for an early afternoon stop in a pretty village pub but did halt to watch that most English of pastimes: Saturday afternoon cricket. I climbed on to high farmland, eyes open for somewhere to ‘stealth’ for the night but everywhere looked a little too exposed for me not to be noticed by keen-sighted early-rising farmers.
Then it was into Maidenhead, stopped at a undistinguished pub for a couple of re-hydrating pints of shandy and a couple of cheese and onion rolls. After Maidenhead, I found the Thames again and was riding along the river bank when it got dark. Reading wasn’t far and I could find a room there, no doubt, but I found an inconspicuous spot, hidden from the path if I didn’t stand up, where there was room for the tent. Cheese and salami for dinner! A great day.