End of the overture...: (Bricketwood - Milton Keynes, Bucks) - When we were two little boys - CycleBlaze

April 30, 2012

End of the overture...: (Bricketwood - Milton Keynes, Bucks)

I told you it had rained of late...
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THIS IS THE END of the overture. Tomorrow will see the start of the opera. This is my last day of riding to meet Mike. While I am riding a mud-crusted bike with bags full of soiled clothing, he is doubtless at home with a tin of bike polish and a heap of maps he has been studying with fascination and terror.

This outer edge of London is where all the fast highways are. They cross and dive under each other like an aerial display team, and with the same amount of noise. Why anybody would want to live here, still less pay a fortune to do so, is beyond me. It has been ruined, in my eyes. It is, though, a wonderful place to get away from. If you desperately need to be somewhere else, and get there fast at least in theory, a house in a web of motorway junctions is probably the height of your dreams.

But I'm not going to grumble because such places have petrol stations, and petrol stations large enough to sell coffee and sticky buns. The owners are used to the oddest and often dirtiest people wandering through, and on both those counts I didn't disappoint. I leaned my bike against one of those bright red metal boxes that all these places possess but never explain, finished off a bucket of coffee and something awful covered in pink icing, then negotiated my way out into the countryside.

I followed minor roads to Hemel Hempstead, one of those towns built fresh in the glory-and-concrete decades that followed the war... and then got lost. I was far too clever to pick the obvious but busy road through town but not clever enough to go any other way. And eventually I found myself surrounded by houses while my compass foolishly suggested I had ridden round in a circle and was now headed back the way I had come. You just can't get a reliable compass these days.

Coming the other way were two women and a large Alsatian. Together, it soon became clear, they could muster the intelligence of any one ordinary (and therefore Alsatian-less) person. I asked for the place I was heading for and discovered immediately that I had run into another case of Petersfield Syndrome. They weren't sure they had heard of this village I wanted, even though it lay no more than ten minutes' ride away. But they weren't going to admit as much and their relentless wish to help pinned me to their side.

All I wanted was a decision. I wasn't going to accept it without confirming it with someone else but at least I could get away. When finally they pointed me off in some direction or another, one of the women said: 'It's hilly that way, though. Did they tell you?'


'The Post Office. Did they tell you?'

It was the last question I'd imagined and my face must have made that plain.

'You are a postman, aren't you?' she insisted. She pointed at the bright red panniers fore and aft on my bike and at my tent, also wrapped in red, on the rear rack. In Britain, Post Office vans and letter boxes are scarlet.

'No, he's not a postman,' the other woman said, having been mistaken as well but quicker at spotting it.

'I was going to say,' the first woman jumped in, as amused with herself as she was embarrassed. 'Round our way they give the postmen little trolleys to pull. I thought "Poor man, having to cycle round with all those letters in his bags."'

The bike path beside the canal from Leighton Buzzard: pleasant for a while but too bumpy
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I did get through Hemel Hempstead in the end, although not by the route they suggested. I went out past the edges of Whipsnade zoo, where for decades there has been a huge white lion carved into the chalk hillside, then on to Leighton Buzzard for a few kilometres on the rather too bumpy path beside the canal.

Somewhere in Milton Keynes, which has greater potential for a tired cyclist to lose himself than even Petersfield and Hemel Hempstead, Mike rode out to meet me at one of those concrete-and-primary colours shopping centres that could be California or Kowloon. I am writing this from his house. Tomorrow, the curtain will rise on the opera itself.

I love the name of this village: Eaton Bray, it's what donkeys do, isn't it?
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The other Little Boy recounts...

What is a 65-year-old semi-retired railwayman doing riding round the South and South West of Britain on a bike with a career cyclist, writer and broadcaster who has ridden across the US twice as well as across Europe and has ambitions, he says, to ride across Australia too? All I can say in my defence is that it seemed like a good idea at the time.

My wife thinks I'm bonkers, as do the rest of my family - how can so many people be wrong? Well, actually I'm hoping they are all wrong, because they know less about cycling even than I do, and that's not much. But, I have the considerable backing from my friend Les Woodland (Léo to the French officialdom) that I am not crazy, just keen to re-enact a ride we did 50 years ago.

To me, just getting round is a physical and mental challenge after such a long break and trying to get used to food and drink as 'fuel' that has to be taken all the time rather than the three-meals-a-day régime. 50 years is a 'roundophobia' number, and the notion that I could get myself to a fitness level that would enable me to repeat a trip I did with an old friend half a century earlier, at a time when most sensible people of my age are slowing down and putting up their feet after 45 years at work, I thought would at least qualify me for full membership of the Crazy Guy on a Bike' Club. When do I get the badge and certificate?

If I do manage to make it round, I will feel some sense of achievement, but I have my rail pass with me in case I have to pull out, so I can always take the train home - bikes go free, if accompanied, on most trains in Britain. Was it a coincidence that I booked us in to the Railway Inn in Culham next to the Great Western main line on the first night?

For my friend, the trip itself is probably of less interest than his witty and colourful observations of life he witnesses as he passes through the French and English countryside. He is an artist with words that project vivid imagery of which I am incapable, having pursued a lifetime writing technical papers and specifications for railway engineering projects. However, I thought someone should record the trip through the eyes of a novice cyclist. That would be me then!

I made a list of things I needed to take that included cycling-related stuff, evening wear, medical kit, including of course the zinc and castor oil cream to be lavished on the parts that come into constant contact with the saddle. To combat the general discomfort, the cycling world has come up with Lycra tights with a padded cushion inside. I'm not sure what I had in 1962 but certainly it wasn't that. Anyway, I have to say that I found in practice during the winter that all the padding and cream doesn't work and I still suffer a certain amount of soreness after a day in the saddle.

I took two of the tights. I took some washing and shaving gear (not necessary in 1962 as I hadn't started shaving). Navigational stuff, OS Landranger maps, compass -yes, you need one especially when trying to find where you are on a map when you follow a route of tiny roads and tracks. Pump, spare inner tube and puncture repair kit.

Léo had sent a set of maps minus one or two. When it was pointed out by Bristol George that our maps appeared out of date - most were 20 years old -I sent off for the latest replacements.

Léo arrived in Milton Keynes and, like most people who enter Milton Keynes for the first time, he could not find our address in spite of copious set of maps I sent him. This is a man who has navigated his way round America and Europe. However, I sympathise. Even those who have lived in the place for decades (like me) occasionally become disoriented by the 'H' and'V' roads and the many roundabouts that all look the same. So I cycled out to MacDonalds in a nearby shopping centre to collect him and lead him back to our flat in Broughton Gate in the north-east of Milton Keynes.

Léo checked we had all the maps and other stuff for the trip, Geneviève did his washing and made his bed while I prepared the evening meal.

Today's ride: 89 km (55 miles)
Total: 957 km (594 miles)

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