Back to where it all began: (Bethersden - Folkestone) - When we were two little boys - CycleBlaze

May 12, 2012

Back to where it all began: (Bethersden - Folkestone)

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THE LAST HOLIDAYS I spent with my parents were on the Kent coast. We rented an apartment overlooking the sea at a place called Sandgate, which is down the hill from Folkestone in the opposite direction from Dover. The apartment is a posh hotel these days but the windows and the doors are still there to the balcony on which I sat and gazed at the coast road and the stony beach beyond it.

I was 13 and 14 in those two years and already riding a bike. I used to see loaded cyclists pedalling gently beneath me, always in the same direction so that I assumed they had come off the ferry from France. They were on big upright bikes, most of them, so I imagined they were Dutch or German. They seemed so wonderfully exotic. I yearned to be like them. I begged my parents to let me bring my bike on these family holidays but they said "We'd never see you again" and refused.

By the end of the second year they could see things had changed and I was allowed off by myself. And that was how I came to spend a week with Mike.

I've had a fond spot ever since for Sandgate and Folkestone. It was there that I saw my first big bike race. It went from Dover to London and someone threw me a printed programme as it passed. I kept it for years. Some, therefore, is nostalgia. But much more is that I simply like it. And so, at the end of three weeks on the road, it was there that I arranged to meet Steph, to spend a couple of days watching the ships go by.

I made the early start that I promised. It had been a chilly night on the wet grass and there was little effort required to get going in an early dawn. I headed south into the rising and warming sun, through villages where nothing stirred. Not even a dog barked. I had the world to myself.

I rode along flat, tree-lined roads still damp from the night. I took the stiff little climb to Woodchurch to be greeted by the white smock mill, its sails still and dripping dew. It stood self-consciously behind a field of bright yellow rape, begging to be pictured but half-hiding behind a hedge. Southern England has cornered the market in oilseed rape. Once it had wheat swaying in the wind, made golden by the sun. Now the crops are more commercial, devoted to margarine and oil rather than humble bread. They seem symbolic of British society, the subtle green and then amber of barley replaced by the primary-colour brightness of the new.

Woodchurch and the necklace of prosperous villages that run north along the edge ofRomney Marsh hide from each other behind hills. None of them is steep but in sequence they are more than you'd choose. I turned, then, on to the marsh and zigzagged its byways to keep some sort of momentum south-eastwards.

Romney Marsh is the triangular projection of southern England into the Channel. Here, the marsh is of grass, kept short by sheep separated by low hedges and dozens of small waterways. Further west, the grass is replaced by plantless rocks, Britain's only desert, culminating in the bleakness of Dungeness. A Stalinist atomic power station stands there separate from the rest of the world and exposed to the Channel weather. The only thing between that and France is a white lighthouse painted with a red band.

Years ago, generals spotted this would be an ideal landing place for Napoléon and his armies. Unable to halt them on the beaches, they dug a canal along the foot of the hills. I rode beside it for a while, seeing how close I could come to immobile herons, the patient killers of the marshes, before they flew away slowly but clearly aggrieved to be interrupted.

The Royal Military Canal is a gentle waterway now, with ugly, flat concrete bridges crossing it, but its less peaceful purpose and the threat of those days show too in the spacing of Martello towers along this coast. They look now like dumpy windmills deprived of their sails but in their day they could fire cannon balls way out to sea from behind thick stone walls.

A rich eccentric had the idea of reconstructing the line from London to Edinburgh... in miniature
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All roads here lead to Hythe. It was one of the Cinque ports, a title it still holds, although its harbour has long since silted up and the centre of town stands now some way from the sea. For me, when I was 13, I was more interested that a rich eccentric called Captain Howey had decided in the 1920s to reconstruct the East Coast railway line here. He couldn't do it at full scale so he opted instead for rails 15 inches apart and stretched them, in pairs, as far as New Romney and then, as a single track, to Dungeness. He paid for miniature copies of the steam expresses running from London to Edinburgh and then, because his enthusiasm couldn't be stopped, for copies of Canadian locomotives as well. His line still runs, 14 miles long and complete with professional signalling, small staffed stations and bridges and level crossings. It remains a delight for small boys in their 60s.

There were no trains running when I stopped but there was a cyclist instead. He was peering at my bike when I emerged from the station.

"I'm waiting for the rest of the club," he said, "but we don't get that many out on a Saturday and I'm beginning to think I'll be the only one." He was also beginning to think he could be colder than he wanted, because he was in shorts even though the morning sun had passed behind dark, cold clouds. He belonged to the Thornton club, he said. There's nothing remarkable about that unless you know that Thornton is a suburb of south London. One by one, it seems, its members had moved out into the country, and they had taken their club with them.

From our hotel I could do as I did as a boy and peer across to France
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I rode slowly along the seafront from Hythe towards nearby Sandgate and then the hill to Folkestone, savouring the moment. On the horizon I could see France. Once, at 13, I used to wonder what was over there. Now I live there.

A circle has been completed.

Today's ride: 43 km (27 miles)
Total: 1,909 km (1,185 miles)

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