Deep in the forest, something stirred: Winchester - Swanage (Dorset) - When we were two little boys - CycleBlaze

May 3, 2012

Deep in the forest, something stirred: Winchester - Swanage (Dorset)

Mike makes it to the coast. He hasn't realised that that means it's all uphill from there
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ONE OF THE FIRST things I told Mike was that rattiness, if that's how it's spelled, will appear on the third day. It often happens. The first day of a tour is a freshly launched ship afloat on hope and excitement. By the second day the ship is sailing calmly. And on the third, the engines conk out. That's when there's a risk of getting ratty, intolerant. Above all, of getting tired - the cause of the intolerance - and relearning the perils of hunger knock.

Mike was tired this morning and a fair bit slower as we set off. He didn't acknowledge it at first and, bless him, didn't let it rattle him either. There weren't as many smiles but there were no sharp words either.

'I didn't believe you when you told me,' he said, 'but I'm beginning to see the truth now!' He felt rough. It didn't help that the day was so grey. Winchester was under a pall of pencil-dust cloud as we left and little improved afterwards.

We can both remember staying in the old mill in the city but not what route we took out from it. How would we, after so long? A shame, though, because today was our first on the original périple and it would have been good to have ridden at least some of it. But what doesn't happen this morning will happen this evening because there is only one worthwhile and above all interesting route from Bournemouth to Swanage and that is by the ferry that runs on clanking chains from Poole to Studland.

The New Forest is the largest wooded area of southern England. And it is by and large continuous forest rather than a collection of isolated woods. It's what's left of original Old England, which centuries back was almost all forest, and it has an extra charm because of the horses and donkeys that live wild there. Or, at any rate, the horses are certainly wild; I'm just guessing that the donkeys are as well.

The forest starts soon after Winchester and stretches to the edge of the sea, with sandy clearings and appealing unsurfaced trails. Legend says that its size was much reduced by the need for sailing ships for the Royal Navy. It wasn't just men who were press-ganged into service: tree-fellers simply flattened trees and carried them away as well.

It was in the forest that we stopped at a roadside shop that advertised that it took in "irononing." Helpfully, I pointed out the mistake. A short woman of about 30, wearing a padded, outdoor jacket and wellington boots as though she might at any moment be called out to catch a passing donkey, thanked me for my interest and said, tactfully, that I was about the 86th this year to have mentioned it.

I changed the subject to cycling and she said she loved riding with her children in a trailer behind her. 'They're two and six,' she said, 'but the two-year-old is a right little madam. And the six-year-old isn't much help either. My husband takes him out on a bike attached to his own and, the moment he can, he stops pedalling. My husband comes home exhausted.'

Her husband, she said, was a forester, meaning he maintained the forest. That might have accounted for the padded jacket and wellingtons, a sort of sympathy outfit.

'But I'm a townie, really,' she confessed. 'I love it here but I'm a Pompey girl.'

You'll remember that Pompey is the local name for Portsmouth.

'Not a lot there to please the soul, is there?' I suggested.

She gave me a rueful smile and nodded. 'Why d'you think I live here? I love it here, my husband being a forester. It means we're so close to it.'

We bought drinks and bars of chocolate and passed a few words with a dumpy woman who looked as though she'd enjoyed life and whom we took to be the shopkeeper's mother, although nobody said so. When she said she had done 'a season at Swanage', it sounded as though she'd been a chorus girl but the improbability took just a second to dawn. She meant she had worked behind a bar there one summer.

Her daughter, if that's who it was, was by now standing behind her ironing board again, wellington boots planted determinedly half a pace apart for stability, "irononing" in full progress.

'Whose do you take in?' I asked.

She sighed.


We took a diagonal line across the forest, Mike not complaining at all when I took him down another unsurfaced track - probably because there were no puddles and that even he recognised it was the only way - and we reached the sea at Christchurch.

Christchurch is the town up the road that is joined to Bournemouth but is somewhere else. Two tales connect me to the area. The first is that alongside Christchurch is the much smaller Mudeford, pronounced Muddy-f'd. In the years when my hormones refused to stop bubbling, I worked with a dark-haired, dark-eyed girl who came from there. Kate, her name was. To my astonishment, she asked me to ask her out. And when I asked her out, she said No. I didn't understand women then and I'm not sure I've got much further since.

The other story demands you know that Bournemouth was for a century the epitome of a resort where elderly couples went to stay in hotels which had antimacassars on the armchairs. String orchestras played among potted palms. By the 1980s the supply of rich elderly couples had dwindled and the image discouraged anybody younger from taking their place.

It was the period when beach habits were becoming a lot more liberal and someone, perhaps the town council - I forget now - thought it would attract younger holidaymakers to the glorious beach if they learned that topless sunbathing was welcome there. But that left them with a problem. It has never been illegal to sunbathe topless in Britain and so the word "permitted" wasn't appropriate. Nor was"encouraged", since it spread the wrong message.

I forget the details now although it did earn me a small cheque from a national newspaper when I wrote an article about it. But I remember that in the end these far-sighted evangelists decided it would be best to avoid words and settle for a pictogram. And that's as far as they got. They couldn't think of one. If you want to make yourself useful, you could perhaps get in touch with your suggestions.

The ferry crosses the water by pulling on a stretched chain
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Half a century back, our route from Christchurch to the chain ferry was through the centre of Bournemouth. Things have changed now and a bike route now runs for miles along the seafront, just above the sand and just below the rows of beach-huts.

The ferry is still there, larger than the one we took back then. Its motor has cogs which grasp a chain draped across the water. The cogs turn and the ferry is drawn along. The wait to get on it in summer is considerable to judge by road signs on the approach roads but cyclists ride straight on. And quite a few of them there were, too, from mountain-bikers coated in mud to those who had commuted across the water with snazzy road bikes.

Two decent hills later, we had crossed the ridge that keeps Swanage from being nosy about what lies to the east and we were in a magnificent hotel with sea views and as many staff as occupants... and all at basement price because we weren't yet in summer. As the cold, grey sea made plain.


The other Little Boy recounts

This turned out to be a rather difficult day for both of us; me, because I reached a physical low point that prevented me from keeping up with Léo. As he slowed down to let me catch up, so I seemed to slow even further. Then at lunch I ate a sub-standard chicken burger which had an even greater debilitating effect than I thought probable.

The journey through the New Forest was a marvel seen through the eyes of this novice cyclist. Pigs, horses, ponies and cattle roam free within the confines of the forest. Meanwhile, Léo was giving me helpful hints about all sorts of cycling techniques. I had 50 years of catching up to do but Léo is a patient man. He had to spend time hanging around waiting for me to catch up, mostly on climbs. He had worked out that he would be one minute ahead of me for every kilometre of climb.

He was often a distance ahead of me and I realised that there were really two rides going on. For him the ride is a trip down memory lane to revisit places of which he had fond and often quite detailed memories. Then my ride: a feat of endurance that would prove to me one way or the other if I had the capacity at 65 to undertake such a physical and mental test and if my body would be able to come out of it without too much damage.

I was astonished at Léo's ability to recall what we did 50 years ago; my recollections were foggy and vague. I was able to recall little of that first ride.

Léo had warned me about the '3rd Day' effect but I had no idea it would prove so awful. I felt as though my batteries were flat and it took some time after arriving at Swanage for me to recover. A good antidote to the exhaustion was that we stayed in the Pines hotel, a lovely place overlooking the sea from the clifftop. Our rooms were huge and I found that a long soak in a hot bath was a great revitaliser.

Early the following morning I took a walk along the beach and the bracing air helped to revive me, as did the excellent breakfast. I wondered if the third day effect had been a self-fulfilling prophecy, but Léo said I would feel much better the following day, and so it proved to be.

Today's ride: 98 km (61 miles)
Total: 1,239 km (769 miles)

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