England – Part VII
Friday, May 29, 2009
The Barge Inn to Newbury
Today I rode the canal in a new direction. Some are familiar because Mark and I rode it in the opposite direction only a week ago. Once I pass Wilcot, it is all new. However, the path gets old, really fast. It is becoming very narrow and at times crumbling into the canal with only inches of slanted dirt to ride on. The scenery, however, s quite beautiful dense forest filled with mystery. Miles of field slop up to meet the blue horizon with puffs of white clouds slowly appearing here and there. Each field seems to be a different color green, some are dark plowed earth, others a swaying yellow carpet of flowers. Canal boats decorated with multitudes of designs and colors are either docked or floating along. As each pass, we say “Good morning” with a smile and a wave.
I’m passing a boat that is just heading out and wave as I ride by. I stop to adjust something then catch up to them, we wave and laugh, this happens three more times, it is an unspoken joke between us now. A lock stops the fun as I ride on with no such inconvenience. Looking at the canal something is off, the water seems lower, and the sloping, muddy bottom is being revealed. Some had joked about me falling in, which he said: “would not be much of a problem since the canals are not deep.” Now I could see this was really true, and my fear of falling in and going 40ft straight down was something my mind had created with no bases. However, the slippery mud and slop of the sides could still be very dangerous.
A man approaches and tells me someone has left both locks open up ahead, causing this part of the canal to empty and the part below to flood. “Not good going for a push bike.” He tells me. Great I think, he tells me there is a road that goes around to the next lock, and all will be good from there. The trail actually takes me to one of two 1800s pumping stations that move the water back up to be used again. Each as two beam steam beam engines, still working, built in the 1800s. Two or three days a week the engines are powered up to pump water to the top of the canal, but not today. I ask one of the caretakers how far the next lock is to get me back on the towpath. He points down to where I’ll need to go and cross over the canal to get to the towpath. He fails to tell me that part of crossing over means walking across railroad tracks.
Now I had to do this once before, and it is a bit nerve-racking. When you reach the gate, there is a red and green light, no yellow, to tell you if it’s safe to pass. There is also a phone which you use to call someone somewhere who’ll let you know if a train is imminent. Now you have to quickly open a gate roll on to the tracks and while on them open another gate to get off. Trains doing anything for 80 to 100 miles an hour don’t give you a heck of a lot of time to do this. O.K. safely on the other side I find that the towpath has been blocked so now I have to go back across the tracks again. How much fun can one person have! Finally, back on the towpath and riding, there is a realization that I’m not going to make my goal, not even close. The ride, which is not over yet, has been draining emotionally and physically.
The towpath ends at a tunnel leaving me looking up a very steep hill with steps in it. There is no way I’m going to get my fully loaded bike up to the top I’ll have to unload my panniers carry each set up the hill then carry the bike up. As I'm pondering this problem, an angel appears. From around the bend at the top of the hill comes a giant walking toward me, followed by his wife. We talk for a bit about an abandoned rail line he is looking for, and she says, “How you going to get up there?” After explaining my idea of dragging everything up the stairs, she turns to her husband and says, “Help him carry it up. NO?” He agrees. Now this fellow looks like he could carry me and the bike up the hill. Up seventeen steps we go, I’ve got the light front end; he’s got the heavy rear. I thank him profusely he says, “Not to worry” and is gone.
Prior to this, I had picked up a hitchhiker that was a snail I later named Larry. Now Larry really didn’t have his thumb out for a ride. Stopping to allow some towpath walkers by I spotted Larry on a leaf, picked him up and put him on my handlebar bag. Nothing happened for a while, then he stuck his head out and started to explore. He was wandering about while I road down the path and for a while, it looked as if he were studying the map atop my handlebar bag. Then he made this really long stretch, there was more of him then I thought, and moved down the side of the bag. I stopped to take his picture, and he looks, obligingly, into the camera. I had forgotten about Larry pondering the hill but looked for him once the giant and I reached the top. He was gone probably brushed off by the plants on the narrow path up. So long, Larry, it was good to meet you.
On and on riding for 6 hours, Hungerford is finial reached. No campgrounds, no Pubs, no inns should I ride on to Newbury another hour away or? After 7 hours, I’ve ridden 52 Kilometers and have no place to stay. I have scoped out several places I could set up my tent alongside the canal. After picking up some food for the morning, I head back to a Lock where I’ll set up camp for the evening hoping I don’t get chased. It is really half a camp there is only room for the bare necessities. I'm set up on a small strip of land between the towpath and the water. My tent, rain fly, are not fully set up, and I'm only using my sleeping pad, and blanket. It is quite cool sleeping next to the canal, so I finally have to use my sleeping bag to get warmer. My bike is locked to a tree on the other side of the towpath.
Saturday, May 30, 2009
Newbury to Oxford
I’m up and packed by 5am heading into town to see about getting some directions to Oxford. I'm thinking nothing’s going to be open until 7 or 9. I pop into the information office and am told that the shops will not open until 10a. There is a town map which shows Oxford Road or A34 not far from where I am so I figure if it heads north, it will take me to Oxford. Since waiting until 10am is a waste of good riding time, I’m off to follow the Oxford Road. This is a really hilly country, with the hills, packed quite tightly together. The road manages to steer clear of a 4 lane highway which at times pretends it is going to connect to but does not. However, after time it does connect I am now bravely walking my bike along hoping the A34 will again return to a sedate country road.
After about a mile I figure this is not going to happen anytime soon. The whizzing by of Lories, cars, and buses very close to are getting a bit nervous, and I think if I stay on this road, I’ll have to walk to Oxford. As I'm walking/pushing I come across a “By Way” sign that points along a dirt road which seems much more appealing than the highway. Heading off on a dirt road between green fields, having no idea where I’ll end up. There are deep ruts in the road which make it almost impossible to ride, so it is a combination of riding and walking. The “By Way” is intersected by a “Walk Way” heading north and south. The rules are you can ride a bike on a “By Way,” but you cannot ride or walk a bike on a “Walk Way.”
I’m not quite sure who’ll catch me out here, but you never know so I continue on. The “By Way” comes to a road which is heading north, off I ride. It is now 9 am, and I’ve been riding for about three hours, and my odometer tells me I’ve ridden 21 kilometers. Oxford is supposed to be 19 Kilometers north of Newbury I'm thinking this is going to be a long day. The road which was heading north is now heading east and back toward the highway making me nervous. Being up higher on the hill I can see the path that took me west below, now I’m parallel to it and heading East, might as well have stayed on the highway. There is a wide spot in the road, so I stop to cook up some breakfast with my new cook set. I’m off again and do eventually ending up back at the highway which I have no intention of getting on again.
There is a road heading west which will take me to Wantage that I vaguely remember from a map as being south of Oxford so off I go heading north again. Outside of Farnborough, I ask a lady leading a beautiful horse the way to Oxford. “Go up to Farnborough, at the top of the hill, then down into Wantage.” Up and up and up I go when she said up she meant up. Up here is not necessarily really high, but it does mean steep as in 12 to 18-degree inclines. I finally reach Farnborough and follow the sign to Wantage. Now when she said down she meant down, I'm doing 28 to 38 kilometers an hour coming down this hill. Wahoo!!! Not necessary a safe speed on a loaded bike. Upon reaching Wantage, I see a sign telling me that Oxford is only 17 kilometers away. Checking looking at my odometer I find I’ve already ridden 30 kilometers. I’m told to take the A338, which I’m on, straight into Oxford, but stay off the A420.
I do ride on the A420, well walk as close to the side as I can get because it is much shorter the using the A338. It is now 3 pm, and a sign shows me that I’m 4 kilometers from Oxford. Finally riding into Oxford 10 hours and 50 kilometers later at an average speed of 8 Kilometer per hour leaves me exhausted. I know where I am and recognize that the street I'm on will take me right to YHA where I'll stay. My butt is just a bit sore, and I have no reserves left for dilly-dallying around looking for a campground that I might be able to remember from two years ago.
Dinner will be at a restaurant called The Jam, which I hope was still in business from my last visit. They offer tasty meals, low prices, and allow you to use their free WiFi as long as you wish. I Skype Mark and chat for a while talking about the twists and turns in everyday life. I attempt to reach my daughter but have no luck, so send her and my son an email. Then check Facebook, answer some emails, then create a map of my travels for my blog. My body is slowly regaining its energy, and I’ve been wondering why I push myself to make such long, arduous ride. There will be no answer tonight unless some message comes to me in my dreams.
Sunday, May 31, 2009
Today is a day of rest, no bike riding, nothing more strenuous then putting some food in my mouth. To that end, I buy a ticket on a city tour bus riding it enough times to be able to repeat the tour speech by heart. I did get off once to take a nap, then back on for a couple of more rides. The bus was a Double Decker, so I ride in the upper deck taking in the sights whiles listening to the guides point out things of interest. There is a cool breeze, warm sun, blue skies with puffs of white cloud floating by makes for a very lazy day. I do not quite understand why most of the cars have the windows closed to such a beautiful day. Yet the bikers abound pedaling briskly along seemingly oblivious to the cars and buses within inches of them. There are pole boat, and canoes on the river Thames, along with sunbathers on the green grassy slopes. The outdoor cafe tables are all full of people chatting, laughing, eating, and drinking in no rush to be anywhere.
Dinner is at The Jam again for yet another fresh lamb burger and some incredible crispy fries. Online again to answer emails, one of which is from Roy, who I met on the train last Sunday. He has tracked down my grandfather’s and grandmother’s birth records along with several other relatives. It looks as if he has gotten the date my grandfather died spot on but is off on my grandmothers. I’ll write to him tomorrow to see if he can dig up some more, how very nice of him to do this for a stranger. After dinner, I check in at the rail station to see about a ticket to my next destination, which will be Delamere.
At the Y, while doing laundry, I chat with Hanna, who works the front desk. She is from the Czech Republic working in the UK. We have a friendly chat about traveling and then needs to tell me she is well balance after I tell her I teach Psychology. Before turning in, I chat with a gentleman in the same dorm room as me. He is here from Buffalo NY and thinking of moving to the west coast. I’ve not decided if I’ll move on tomorrow so I’ll sleep on it.