From France to England, 950 years later

IMG_20160528_141407Last Saturday, I rested in David and Lucille Wilson’s home, napping between rain showers. They have carved a little piece of paradise on the edge of the Burgundy region of France, expanding the 16th-century Prebytère (vicarage) next to the parish church of Livry. Flower gardens, lawn, vegetable garden and a recently acquired neighbouring parcel grace the property.

IMG_20160528_141418On Sunday morning, David kitted up for a 90-km training ride, which began with his accompanying me to the train station in Nevers, some 30 km north of Livry. The rural scenery stretched to the horizon, with no traffic to obscure the fresh smells or drown the whirr of our tyres on the road. WP_20160529_002He complimented me on keeping up 21-22 k/h with my 120-kg load, which I appreciated, because I knew he was holding back on his lightweight racing machine. David is a Category 2 licensed racer, training for the Departmental championships in July. He led me on a direct route to Nevers, which I could never have figured out myself. He also identified livestock that we passed. I recognized the Charolais beef cattle, which I had seen on two farms in Albemarle County.WP_20160529_007 David told me that Charolais is expensive beef, because the cattle get sick if they rub together in a feedlot. Consequently, restaurateurs and gourmets know that Charolais beef has to be grass fed and free-range.

David left me at the station, and continued on. The skies were threatening, but I knew that he would be home and I would be in the train before the rain came.

IMG_20160529_090036

Nevers

Luck was with me, although the weather did not favour photography. The ride from the Gare de Lyon in Paris to the Rue de Rome next to the Gare Saint Lazare was facilitated by the extensive bicycle lane system. By 1245, I was greeting my friend and colleague, Chris Durban, in her penthouse flat. She showed me the studio apartment she uses as a guest house, and we sat down to lunch and catching up. After that, I took the RER train to Vincennes to visit Bethany and John Cagnol, friends from Charlottesville. It was a pleasant afternoon, catching up and taking two-year-old Charlotte for a walk. The rain began just as we got back to the apartment. After dinner, I made my way back to the train in the rain, grateful for my Arc’teryx rain jacket.

The Loire river, swollen from the rain

The Loire river, swollen from the rain

Gene Kelly may have immortalized April in Paris by dancing in the rain, but the steady, cold downpours were anything but romantic. Monday, I rose from a good night’s sleep, but did not feel like going out in the rain. Chris was working, which was what I did until it was time to ride to the 10th Arrondissement to meet my colleague Claudio Cambon for lunch. Again, the bike lanes across the entire city kept me safe in the traffic that would have otherwise added greatly to the slipping hazard of the wet streets. I arrived early, and we walked to a brasserie near Claudio’s studio for lunch. I using dead reckoning to navigate back, because the rain was so heavy that I could not keep my phone out. Paris is not hard to guess your way across, at least if you are coming back. Soon I was back at Chris’ place. While my pants dried (love those technical fabrics), I worked some more, and tried to plan my assault on England. Chris and I walked to a brasserie near her house for supper. I turned in early, although I did not have to be anywhere the next day until 1130.

A word about the brasseries in Paris. I like eating in these combination bar-restaurants. The food and drink is always good, the menu is predictable, and the prices are reasonable. Many American restaurants chains (Applebee’s, Chili’s, etc.) try to capture the feel of these places, but their kitchens can’t compete. In my opinion, a brasserie is where to eat French food; otherwise, I would go to a place featuring a different cuisine. French towns and cities offer Vietnamese, Chinese, Indian, Middle Eastern and North African cuisine as good as any in the “old country”.

Wednesday morning, I packed up and left my loaded bike in the entrance hall of Chris’ building. I walked to the Post Office to mail off some stuff that I did not need to keep carrying (like maps of France and Italy), then walked to the Gare Saint Lazare. I bought my train ticket to Cherbourg, and had lunch in the Cour de Rome, a brasserie in front of the station. The rain fell lightly as I walked back to my bike and pushed it to the station for the 1515 train to Normandy.

The skies opened up on the way to Cherbourg, washing away my plans to tour around the quaint medieval city before embarking for the night ferry to Poole. I tried to ride to the city centre, but turned away and went to the Ferry Terminal on the edge of town instead. Taking shelter from the rain and wind, I had a disappointing meal of bangers and chips at the brasserie in the terminal, then read a book until it was time to board (2100). As the only bicyclist on board, I was processed first. With my eye shades and my camp pillow, I slept reasonably well in the reserved recliner, while most of my fellow passengers slept on the deck.

We moored in Poole at 0700 on Wednesday, 1 June, under cloudy skies. My first impression of England was white cliffs. Maybe not as tall as the cliffs of Dover, but seemingly made of the same stuff. I could not get a phone or data signal, so my smartphone map app would only display a general picture of the area and my GPS location. The cloud cover completely obscured the sun, so I navigated out of Poole using the NE wind as a compass. About 10 km from the ferry, I picked up the A351, and was able to follow the signs to Weymouth and then Upwey. The roads appeared as I remembered them, so the 50 km to Upwey vanished under my wheels with little concern.

IMG_20160602_202450It was still cold and grey when I arrived, but at least it did not rain. My friend from the last NATO tour in Naples, Roger Pinhey, was home. He showed me to the “captain’s cabin”, which was a bedroom decorated in a nautical motif. It had the feel of a sea cabin, which made me feel very much at home. My phone had a signal, but my European phone plan from Wind in Italy did not work, because Wind apparently had not made arrangements with the providers in England.

Sally, his wife, appeared soon, and we had lunch. After that, Roger took me to Dorchester, where I bought a SIM card and a one-month data and phone plan from Vodaphone. I also picked up some parts that I had left behind in Cannes: spare tube and cable for the bike, and a mini-USB cable for the bicycle lights. By the time we got back, the Pinheys’ daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren had returned from touring. Dinner was a feast and pleasant swapping of sea stories as we caught up the 30 years since we had met in Naples.

IMG_20160602_202404The next day, Roger fixed a full English breakfast for the seven of us. Sally came back while we were finishing. Ben, Tamsin, and the children loaded up the Range Rover, and headed back home to West Sussex. Roger went to the championship round of the golf tournament that he was playing. IMG_20160602_202417Sally showed me the nature and wildlife areas around the Seven-mile Copse while we walked Polly, a two-year old border collie, who tirelessly played catch with us the whole way. After resting in the afternoon and doing the laundry, we drove into Weymouth, a fine tourist destination in its own right. I had the best fish-and-chips ever at the Old Rooms Inn. IMG_20160602_203918We did a tour of Portland Island, which is made of the Portland stone used to build Saint Paul’s Cathedral and countless important buildings and homes in London. Portland features a spit of shingle and pebbles 18 miles long, which is a unique and remarkable geologic feature.

IMG_20160602_204811We also visited Pennsylvania Castle, at least to see it from the outside. The original home of William Penn before he emigrated to the colonies is now a private home, so we could not go on the grounds.

The Cove House Inn overlooking the channel features live music on Thursday evenings, so I enjoyed Irish folk songs as we had a beer at the pub before going home. IMG_20160602_212040The sun set outside the pub, with a promise of a break in the rain: “red sky at night, sailors’ delight.”

The forecast for Friday called for a 14-knot headwind and a cold, cloudy day. I expected a 92-km grind into the wind from Upwey to Wells. IMG_20160603_095102Instead, the wind never picked up above a gentle breeze, and the sun came out halfway there, in Yeovil. By following the National Cycle Route 26, and NCR 3, I missed the scenic routes on the Michelin map, but I think I enjoyed scenery that the famous guidebook could never have offered. I especially made myself appreciate the scenery when the National Cycle Route turned into an overgrown, unpaved bridle path. IMG_20160603_101047At one point, I was pushing my bicycle up the bridle path, where it narrowed to less than a metre and consisted of loose gravel in a single rut.

Except for the three or four miles of bridle path, the route delighted the senses, and cut 6 km off the planned trip. I arrived at the Old Vicarage attached to Saint Thomas Church in Wells at 1540, well ahead of schedule. IMG_20160603_153620I walked down to Wells Cathedral for Evensong, but it was “half-term”, and the Cathedral School Choir was on holiday. Not having found a pub with WiFi on the way back, I used the connection in  the Parish Hall of Saint Thomas Church until Alan Butt-Philip and Christina Baron arrived. They had been neighbours and friends in Charlottesville for a year, while Alan was a visiting professor on sabbatical at the University of Virginia.

IMG_20160603_171323Today, I am in Wells, taking pictures and enjoying one of the prettiest towns in a part of England known for its pretty towns. Tomorrow, I will set out to cross southern England (Salisbury, West Sussex, East Sussex), before turning north to visit friends in the London area.

Next week, the sea story (maybe). Meanwhile,

Smooth roads and tailwinds,

Jonathan

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