Travel? Why travel?: (Culham - Winchester, Hants) - When we were two little boys - CycleBlaze

May 2, 2012

Travel? Why travel?: (Culham - Winchester, Hants)

Mike tackles - with some caution - his first bout of off-road riding
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'WE HAD A CYCLIST this week who was riding home to Rome,' the cheerful woman in the hotel told me this morning. 'Never wanted to travel myself, though. No. I was born here and I've been here all my life. Sometimes I've thought it would be good to see somewhere else. But then I think: why? What would I do that I couldn't do here? I'd just eat and sleep, but here I can sleep in my own bed. So why go?'

Well, put that way, indeed why? How do you explain to anyone why, when you could easily travel by car and sleep in hotels, or just stay at home with a good book and the view from the window, why you should want to pedal a bike and - as I more usually do - pitch a tent in a muddy wood?

Just as well that some people travel, though. She and her hotel would be out of a job otherwise. And we're a long way from being the first travellers here. It was just down the road that Jerome K. Jerome and his two other men in a boat, 'not to mention the dog', travelled up the Thames. Their journey was by boat: Three Men in a Boat is a largely true account but with 'added colour for which there is no extra charge.' It was near here that they heard successive anglers claim to have caught a large fish mounted in a cabinet on the wall. Each described in detail the battle he had had to land it. It was at the end of the evening that someone dislodged the cabinet and the fish fell to the floor and shattered into a thousand pieces of plaster.

We rode this morning away from Oxford, away from its commuter belt, to the Berkshire Downs. The road narrowed and rose through dark trees. The surface grew worse. Not many passed this way. We emerged in an open space at the summit. A blue sign warned us that the Ridgeway was closed to motor traffic.

'Wonderful!' he said... afterwards
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We soon saw why. The path, two wheel spaces with a mound of mud and pebbles between them, rose and twisted between fields with generous puddles. We rode on, tyres slipping now and then, water splashing halfway to our hubs. Distinctive wheel marks showed we weren't the first cyclists that morning.

Mike was dubious at first, new to this idea of riding unsurfaced and above all flooded roads. But he warmed to it as soon as he realised he wasn't going to fall into the tea-coloured water and that his bike wasn't about to snap in two. We saw nobody. We had our little muddy world to ourselves.

His face was creased in concentration when he caught me where the path rejoined the road. He was resisting the temptation to fall. But his face lit into a beam as he braked to a halt and gasped 'This is wonderful!'

Why travel? One picture tells why
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It was hilly today. We crossed unannounced from Berkshire into Hampshire but the hills stayed steep and winding on our side and long and gentle down the other. I took Mike down another, shorter but no less dry track an hour before Winchester. It saved five kilometres on an increasingly busy road but by then he was less impressed. The hills had slowed us down and we were running later than we hoped.

'I thought I'd be in bed having a snooze by now,' he grumbled. But that was the consequence of gravity and geography, not of our final excursion into the mud.

We are now in Winchester. Fifty years ago we stayed in the old water mill in the city centre that in those days was a youth hostel. We washed in the mill race beside the huge paddles. Now it is a hostel no longer and we have booked into a bed-and-breakfast just out from the centre. Tomorrow, after dinner tonight with my friend Sally, we shall be back on the route that we took round south-west England half a century ago.

When we were two little boys.

C'est belle, la vie...
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The other Little Boy recounts:

The forecast was for cloudy, dry weather and 15C. My knees still ached a bit from the first day and I wondered how this would affect my ability to keep pace with Léo throughout the day's ride.

We set off in a southerly direction passing through picturesque tiny villages but oddly modernised and renovated thatched cottages; there must be some wealthy thatchers in Oxfordshire and Berkshire. Léo took us through forest tracks that were full of large sections of water that forced us to ride fast through it or dismount and walk round it. I learned that cycling can be a wet and muddy activity.

The uphill bit across the Berkshire Downs was hard but with what little wind there was behind us it was not as bad as it could have been. The subsequent downhill was more exciting and when we emerged back on to Britain's road network I felt a sense of thrill at the preceeding part of the ride.

After about30km we stopped for coffee at a pub that declared it was 'open all day' on a large, friendly sign on the outside. Inside a man sat in the darkened bar. 'Are you open?' Léo asked. 'Can be,' the manreplied.

We had our coffee and left after a short stop. Later we stopped at a local inn where we had a lovely plate of steaming sausage and mash. In theafternoon we managed to perform a large circle that brought us back to a point I recognised having passed about ten minutes earlier. 'Léo, we've passed those three red cars already'

He got his revenge, taking us once more through forest tracks that carried yet larger pools of midge-infested standing water. 'Come on, ride through them faster,' he said. Our muddy bikes became caked with another layer of mud. When we emerged again on to the road, Léo claimed we had saved 3km compared to following the planned route. I was not convinced.

We stopped for coffee at a pub and, on leaving, Léo announced: 'Bad luck, you've got a puncture'. A further 20 minutes or so was lost as he watched and instructed while I pottered around with the spare inner tube, finally returned the wheel to bike and re-inflated the tyre. We then pursued a main road towards Winchester that proved to be tough going for me, as I was beginning to tire as the road rose and fell.  Léo became a dot in the distance. We finally arrived at Flowerdews B&B, in Winchester, a lovely house in Stoney Lane, and Léo awaited his date for the evening, a former colleague from his BBC days whom he had not seen for some years. They invited me to join them for dinner, an offer I accepted only after learning that the B&B did not serve dinner. The evening was thus spent in the very pleasant company of Léo and his delightful friend, Sally.

Today's ride: 95 km (59 miles)
Total: 1,141 km (709 miles)

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