Think of me as your garden gnome: (London - Bethersden, Kent) - When we were two little boys - CycleBlaze

May 11, 2012

Think of me as your garden gnome: (London - Bethersden, Kent)

Kent has enough migrant field-workers that signs in Spanish remind them to drive on the left
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"YOU WOULDN'T get away with that in  America," the chirpy man behind the anything-if-it's-fried counter said. I smiled. I'd asked for a fried egg. That's what you ask for in Europe, and a fried egg is what you get.

"I worked there for eight years," Mr Chirpy went on. "In Florida, and on the cruise ships. I couldn't believe how many different ways someone could order a fried egg until then. But it was a great life. Recommend it to any young person, I really would."

The café outside Dartford station brought my second conversation about America, or with Americans, in just two hours. Over breakfast I'd chatted to two Americans, he with a dopey beard he fancied would make him look older and wiser, she with one of those open, expressionless faces you knew you'd forget the moment you looked elsewhere.

They were from Florida, too. They said they were going to Ed-in-berg and to Bath,which they rhymed with Cath. Then they were going to Frantz, to see the D-Day beaches. When I asked how they were getting there, they said by train.

"Will you hire a car to get from there to the beaches?", I asked, knowing that it was a decent distance from the nearest station.

"We're too young," the boy with the beard said.

"Too young for what?"

"Too young to drive."

Oh, heaven'ssake... what's the world coming to?

I took a train to Dartford, which is on the southern bank of the Thames and has an elegant bridge and two grubby tunnels linking it to the other side, only because that was the first convenient train on offer. All I wanted was to escape London once more but still be left with a decent ride before the day ended. And so, in late morning, I finished my fried egg and what went with it and set off into the Kentish hills.

Kent is one of my favourite English counties, although in the last few decade sit has almost all become commuter territory for London and acquired the traffic to go with it. All the same, there are a lot of small roads through woods and across (rather than around) hills if you're prepared to look for them.

I rode through woods carpeted with bluebells, flowers that children used to gather by the handful until society grew wiser and kinder about robbing others of the beauty of wild flowers. I closed my ears to the racket of Brands Hatch car-racing circuit, where something painfully noisy was going on, and dropped down from the North Downs towards Maidstone.

It was an hour after that that I got lost. Well, not wholly lost but uncertain, anyway, of whether I'd gone the right way. I was just looking at my map, my feet on the floor on either side of the bike, when a voice behind me said: "They dropped them all on Germany."

It was such a wonderful opening to a conversation that I couldn't help laughing. I looked round and there in the gateway to his farm was a grey-bearded man of about 55, dressed in wellingtons and blue overalls. His eyes twinkled.

"Dropped them all on Germany and never put them back," he said.


"Signposts. That's why you don't know where you are. They took them all up in the war, to confuse the enemy if they landed. They said they'd put them back, but they never did, and if you ask me they took the metal ones and melted them down to make bombs and drop them on Germany. So that's why you're lost. Because Jerry's got the signposts and we haven't."

I couldn't help laughing. And there was probably truth in what he said. Signposts really were taken up during the war and a lot never made it back. Whether any got turned into bomb cases, I don't know, but plenty of other things did, right down to the railings of people's homes. Railings that were of solid enough metal, anyway; it emerged years later that most of the them had been dumped in the sea off the Isle of Wight.

My man was a conversation in himself. He took my side as well as his own.

"'Course, they use satellites now and they come charging up this road in their big cars and either they meet a car-transporter going the other way or they miss the bend and bang into the ditch and ruin their ally wheels."

Ally, pronounced allee, was his abbreviation of aluminium. He didn't say but I got the impression that anyone driving country lanes on ally wheels deserved what was coming to him.

"Many a night I go out for a walk here, see what's what, and there's some Jag or a Bentley half down a ditch because the guy's hit the verge and ruined a wheel. Sensible ones these days, they ignore their satellites and stick to the main roads even if they're told to turn off. But there's always someone who has a go and drives too fast and gets himself into trouble."

I prepared to get going again. He directed me the way I wanted to go and waved me away with a call of "Mind those potholes!"

I rode on and round in a loop trying to find a campground marked on my map. I'd have camped in a wood or some other out-of-the-way place but Kent's not like that. Not this bit, anyway. The fields have electric fences holding in sheep or cattle and what doesn't contain them has ponies or crops instead. I looked and looked for this camping place and knocked at doors for directions. Everyone insisted it was there, but since the target area was no more than a triangle of roads that it took 15 minutes at most to ride, I could see it wasn't.

By now the light was starting to go. I passed once more in front of a single-storey house set back from the road with a paddock to one side and what looked like an abandoned farmyard on the other. I pushed my loaded bike to the door for maximum effect, effortlessly managed to look exhausted, and knocked on the door. A short smiling woman answered and smiled above the racket of quite possibly two thousand dogs.

"I'm so sorry to trouble you," I whimpered apologetically, "but I wonder if you can help me out of a fix..."

I explained the vanished campground. I explained that I saw she had a bit of land and wondered if I could camp.

"I'll be gone in the morning long before you're up," I promised.

"Sure you can camp," she said in an accent I couldn't quite identify.

"Just think of me as an oversized garden gnome," I urged, as her husband directed me to the paddock. It was sodden but I was hardly going to complain.

"And that accent?" I asked. "Where are you from?"

"From round here," she laughed, as though there was a trick in it."I've lived here for 16 years but I'm from New York originally."

So, once more, an American going for the silver lining rather than the cloud and instinctively saying yes to a stranger in need. We talked a little more and she said her husband, who was English, wanted to tour America. But she'd spent most of her unmarried life trailing after her parents, who seemed never to have worked in the same army base, or "facility" as she called it, for more than a week.

"Not keen," she said, "not keen at all. But he is. So I suppose one day we shall just have to go."

I picked the driest bit of the field, cooked a meal and went to sleep unwashed, a scruffy garden gnome.

Today's ride: 89 km (55 miles)
Total: 1,866 km (1,159 miles)

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