To call something the "best" you must have some constant to measure it against. It could be distance, speed, duration or some other figure but I think of it as being the one I enjoyed the most. It was during a trip I made to England in the fall of 1996. I was traveling light and didn't take my bike along. Fortunately a friend there was able to borrow one for me to use.
It wasn't long, just five days. I didn't ride far, perhaps 175 miles and speed didn't even enter into the equation. In fact, the only destination I had was back in Bath in five days. Of course, I did have a few things I wanted to see like Avebury, Stonehenge and the famous white horses carved into hillsides, but aside from that, it was just the road (or trail) in front of me and what I might come across. I was out to discover rural England.
With no timetable, no destination and no idea where the day might end, I got it off to a good start by stopping to share a candy bar with a man fishing from the towpath along the Kennet and Avon Canal. He had the strangest rig I'd ever seen; a tapered fiberglass pole about 12 feet long, but a line no more than three feet long. He would do a hand over hand bit as he poked the pole out toward the middle of the canal, then he would lower the baited hook into the water. It didn't have a bobber or anything like that, he just watched for the tip of the pole to dip slightly. Then with a quick flip he'd set the hook and lift a fish about the size of the palm of your hand but no more than half an inch thick flopping and gyrating out of the water. He'd reel in his pole hand over hand and add his catch to those already in a pail. I saw several other people fishing the same way. Later that day when I stopped for lunch at a pub which appeared to serve mostly people living on converted longboats on the canal, that was their special. The lady said they were some sort of perch and thick as flies in the canal. She said they bought them fresh from the locals each day.
I was more or less bound for Avebury and its stone circles but was often sidetracked by interesting things to visit and photograph. The map I had been sent by the British Tourist Bureau showed perhaps one out of every ten roads and was almost useless unless you were in an car and following the main highways. I was navigating mostly by asking people I came to along the way, which turned out to be less than accurate because they always kept pointing me ahead on the towpath. The day was waning when I turned off the towpath to a pub in town with the odd name of Bagshot. He informed me that I was past where I was supposed to turn by about 15 miles and the nearest I could find a place to stay was three miles away in Hungerford. He also recommended a B&B and called to be sure she had a room.
The lady with the B&B was very nice but quite a talker. Her husband had died four years before and she let a couple rooms to supplement the monthly stipend she got from the government. She said that was the only way she could afford to keep the rather large (by British standards) house. It was somewhat out in the country on about two acres with a barn and several out buildings. She told me that she had gotten rid of their two horses after her husband died. A couple from Sweden had rented the other bedroom for six months while he was there on business but had gone home for a few days.
The way she went at talking would make one thing she hadn't said a word since the day she laid her husband to rest and was trying to catch up. I found that her husband was from Chicago and they had met while he was stationed there during World War Two. He returned after the war and they were married. I was still suffering from jet lag and was having a bit of a sinking spell by about 9:00PM, so I finally had to beg off on her endless stories and head for bed.
It was barely light outside when I was awaken by the sounds and aromas of cooking. She laid on a breakfast to feed a harvest crew. If it could be considered as being breakfast fare, it was on my plate. At the slightest indication that I was about to finish something, she would bound to her feet to replenish my plate. When I could hold no more, she said, "My husband was a big eater and I thought all you Yanks were." As I was about to ride away, she handed me a bag containing enough sandwiches, cheese and fruit to carry me through the day.
I followed a road along the River Kennet ten miles to Marlborough where I found two things I really needed, some hot coffee and a tourist information office where I could get some good maps.
With Landranger Series maps, finding where I was going was easy. They even show trails in addition to all roads. I was riding a MTB, so it was right at home on the trails which are kept open to the public by rule of some queen a few hundred years ago.
Stonehenge is by far the best known of all the stone circles in England but does not hold a candle to Avebury and the surrounding area. If a person has time for only one such historical site, then it should be Avebury. There is no charge for visiting there and since most of the land is National Trust, you can camp just about anyplace you like. While roaming through the stone monoliths, I came across a strange man with long, flowing white hair and dressed in even stranger clothing. He told me that he was reincarnated from the people who built the place. However, since he was wearing blue jeans and hiking shoes under the robe, it was hard to take him at face value. My main regret is that I didn't spend more time there.
I did stop by Stonehenge, where the number of tour busses always equals the number of stones in the circle. A bus would stop, the passengers would alight in a run, shoot some photos and were back on the bus bound for the next stop. I shot a few pix through the chain link fence instead of paying about ten pounds to walk through a tunnel and get only slightly closer. They have the place fenced off to keep the goonies, goblins and goths away. Had I known what I do now, I would have spent that day in a far more productive way.
I was riding along a trail across the Salisbury Plain, mostly used by hikers, headed for a town indicated on the map as having lodging when I came upon a camping barn. It was sort of a very rustic hostel. Just as the name implies, it was a barn where you could camp in the loft. There were about ten army-type cots and a community toilet and shower downstairs in the corner of the barn. I didn't find it the first try because it was hidden behind some sort of hay making machine that looked like it had been around since Roman times. The price was a mere three pounds if you had your own sleeping bag. If not they would rent you a sleeping sack, pillow and a feather filled cover for another couple pounds.
There was one other cyclist beside myself and five hikers; three women and four men. About the only concession to modesty was to look the other way when someone was undressed.
The lady of the house had already told the early arrivals that lamb stew was on that night. It was delicious, especially with chunks of home made bread we ripped off big, round loaves to sop up the gravy. Most of my roomies were making breakfast of some sort the next morning but having nothing to fix or cook with, I rode four or five miles to the next town where I found a restaurant.
I wandered into the interesting town of Shaftsbury where the old cobblestone main street climbs a steep hill to the city square but no cars are allowed on it. I was visiting the Abbey and found a rare, wartime first edition of John Steinbeck's "Cannery Row" for sale in their used bookstore. It cost 50 pence. The back of the dust jacket has this message, "This book, like all books, is a symbol of the liberty and the freedom for which we fight. You, as a reader of books, can do your share in the desperate battle to protect those liberties -- Buy War Bonds" It was published in January of 1945 and I would guess that it had been sent to someone serving there during the war and he left it when he returned to the US.
Along the way I came across a convention of antique London double-decker bus enthusiasts. Most of the buses had been restored to look like the day they went into service. The oldest one had been made in 1926, two years before I was born. There were a couple booksellers there and it's amazing how many books are available on just that one subject.
As I rode through a small town, I noticed an interesting old British Tudor style building with a sign that announced, "The George Inn Wadworth." When I inquired about price, they told me they had one single they could let me have for sixteen pounds but the bath was downstairs. It turned out to be a tiny carrel at the top of a steep stairway no more than two feet wide. It was barely large enough for a cot with room to swing your feet out onto the floor. No way could I get my bike up there so I locked it to a support pole on the balcony overlooking the courtyard. Later my friend told me that was where the movie, "Tom Jones" was filmed. I rented the video when I got home and recognized nearly every detail. I ate in the same place where they filmed the famous seduction scene over dinner. I found it odd that there was no mention anywhere about it having been used for a movie.
A shadow passed over me as I was riding the next day and I looked up to see a glider overhead. I spotted another one being winch launched from atop a nearby ridge. Being a longtime soaring pilot, this was something I just had to stop for. After I introduced myself, they took me in like a long lost relative. The fraternity of soaring pilots is a close knit bunch, no matter where you go. I spent that night on a cot beneath the tilted wings of sailplanes in the hangar and had dinner with them at their monthly cookout.
The wind changed and low clouds began to roll in the next day and by the middle of the afternoon, a spattering of drizzle had begun to fall. I stopped by a pub to ask directions to the nearest place to stay. He made a couple calls only to find that one B&B was filled and the people who owned the other were out of town. Then he called the owner of a caravan (travel trailer) parked behind the pub to get permission for me to stay in it. It was rather small, just room for a bed, a small table and a couple chairs but no bathroom. There was an ice box and small gas burner for cooking, not that I wanted to do any. But especially, it was clean, dry and free.
The drizzle had turned to a steady rain the next morning and the "tele" was saying it would last for a while. I was facing about 25 wet miles to Bath on a road with more traffic than I would like even on a nice day. Someone suggested that I catch the train at a stop less than a mile away. The ticket agent told me where to stand on the platform and sure enough, the car with the door marked with the decal of a bicycle stopped right in front of me.
I firmly believe that true adventure lies not at travel's end but during the journey itself. Most of us seem to have grown up with the idea that to travel, we must be going someplace and the destination takes precedence over anything that might be found in getting there.
See An Excellent Adventure for other details and some pictures of this tour.
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