Cast into the Petersfield pit: (Portsmouth - Crowthorne, Berks) - When we were two little boys - CycleBlaze

April 28, 2012

Cast into the Petersfield pit: (Portsmouth - Crowthorne, Berks)

This, wrote a journalist, is what the British picture when they think of Britain... even if it's been a long time since thatched cottages were the home of whiskery countrymen called Jake and Old Ned. They are now more likely the home of stockbrokers and company directors
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NOBODY CAN SAY I don't know class when I see it. I knew it the moment I walked into the pub after landing in Portsmouth. It had broken chairs, and a drunk at the bar who said Ay yoose a-grigglegroggle tha' fookin' baycycleday tha' way?

My command of drunken lowland Scots isn't perfect but I agreed I had indeed ridden 'tha' fookin baycycle' all that way, but since nobody had asked just how far that might be, it seemed safe.

'Ex-Navy, me,' the drunk said. 'Fookin' twunny years in th'Andrew, know that, doya?'

I expressed admiration. I seemed best. Two decades in the Andrew - sailors' slang for the Royal Navy. This was the kind of place that probably had two head-beaten sailors unconscious in a corner, waiting for the Crushers [the naval police] to cart them away. Pompey, as the locals call Portsmouth, is a naval town. Subtlety is not its virtue.

Upstairs, the rooms were fine. Spotless, in fact, off a polished corridor. The small breakfast room was at the end of the corridor, staffed by a cheerful woman who had dyed her hair blond and found it had turned out ginger. The only other residents there sat opposite each other, reading the sports pages of tabloid newspapers and occasionally looking at pictures of little-dressed girls and remarking that they had 'a full yard of lungs, that one.'

I forget how I got into the conversation but it turned out the younger man was 'Navy.' I asked if that went for the older one as well. He sounded a lot more smoothly spoken and answered 'Royal Marines.'

The younger one made a 'Listen to Lord Snooty, there' face, which the older man took in good part before replying with: 'Navy! Load of fuckin' taxi drivers, that's all you lot are.'

Not all Royal Marines are commandos but they're none of them ordinary sailors. There is a pecking order and Marines, from this brief exposition, seemed to peck mere matelots.

I dropped out of the conversation, being just a stranger passing through. My sagacity wasn't required. But I listened to their analysis of world affairs, notably the war - peace-keeping - in Afghanistan.

'It's only the Americans doing anything there, innit? Rest o' them, the French an' that, just there sunbathing, ain't they?'

'We're there, too, though, ain't we?' the other man said.



End of conversation. That part of it, anyway. They went back to looking at the pin-ups in the paper.

Portsmouth is no gem. It is a naval and ferry town, a consequence of which is that most of it was flattened by the Luftwaffe. The same happened to other places as well but Portsmouth seemed to take it to heart and rebuilt itself in such an ugly way that no enemy would ever have the heart to flatten it again. Or, if it did, it would see it as a social service.

I rode a bike path out of town, crossed the steep ridge which separates the city from the rest of England, and passed into a symphony of green peace and gentle tradition. Manicured villages with perfect greens and a great number of burglar alarms hid in verdant valleys. A British journalist called Jeremy Paxman once wrote about the British that when they idealised their country, to stiffen their resolve in war, it was southern Hampshire they imagined.

Of course, perfection can never be general. There are busy roads, very busy roads, and I came across a spider's web at Petersfield. It took me -and I'm not exaggerating by even a single minute - more than three hours to find my way out.

I will be honest now and admit that my map was 20 years old. But that didn't matter as much as the way nobody knew their own geography. The once tolerable highway to London, along which I was unwisely signposted, is now all but a motorway. I got on it for an anxious 20 minutes and escaped at the first exit. That got me into a network of wooded minor roads out of which nobody could reliably direct me. The one man you'd expect to know the way - a travelling postman - kept telling me 'My delivery round doesn't go that way.'

When I asked him to use his insight to send me just anywhere, so that I'd know where I was and could start all over again, he did it in postman fashion: 'Well, you ride down Church Lane and turn right into Millward Avenue and go as far as Septon Street and...'

In the end I found Petersfield again for myself.

'Could you direct me to the Farnham road, please?'

'The Farnham road? I don't think that exists any more.'


'Well you have to take the London road '

'No, I don't, that's the road to London. I don't want to go to London. I want to go towards Farnham.'

'But that's the way my husband always drives me. Then he turns off somewhere.'

I never did find the right way. I got sent on 'the old road', which in fact went somewhere quite different. But it did get me out of this wretched place a good 30 kilometres after I'd entered it.

The rest was no more than a lot of dispirited riding in the rain, three hours later than planned, to a campground up a muddy track in Crowthorne. But at least they gave me a lump of cake when I got there.

Today's ride: 121 km (75 miles)
Total: 776 km (482 miles)

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