Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Rudgwick, England to Dawlish, England: The ocean, the moon, and strangers in pubs

When we last left off, I was in Rudgwick, England, having just enjoyed some toast with cheese (a food you can get anywhere in England – points there), seen about a hundred hounds walking down the street, and somehow managing to survive my first few days in England without getting arrested, starving, or missing out on too much sleep (not that those were at all likely, but of course, anxiety Kyle was a bit worried about them).

So much has happened since then – it's been 11 days since my last even semi-substantial update – there's no way I could possibly cover it all. So I apologize in advance for missing details, encounters, events... but I will sure do my best.

A Warmshowers member in Crawley, just outside Gatwick airport where I flew in, had given me advice on getting to Cornwall which involved taking a ferry from Southampton to Hythe, so Southampton was my next definite destination. Most of the notable events from Rudgwick to Hythe involved scenery and hills, a few of which I will regale you with now (and as usual, more are on the map):

Once interesting thing about England is there are these “public footpaths” going everywhere. “Footpath,” as far as I can tell, is synonymous with “sidewalk,” except that it also includes trails going through peoples' yards and/or farms and/or just the middle of the woods. Some of them seem to go nowhere, some are quite pretty, some look like shortcuts on your map... so when a rather large hill approached and there was a shortcut-looking footpath on my map, I took it.

It was still hilly, and it seemed to be intended mostly for horses, but I survived.

Somewhere between Rudgwick and Hythe, I found a spot in the woods to camp and hung up my fly to dry from the storm the night before.

Southampton was big and beautiful... and a bit hilly, as was becoming a theme (recall the adage: “you should see Cornwall, it's hilly but beautiful” – thus it seems logical that the closer one is to Cornwall, the hillier it gets). It was also a city, and cities are a pain to navigate, but I eventually made it to the ferry and 4 GBP later was across the bay to Hythe, where I stopped for food, some brief interneting, and to listen to a busking accordionist who I wish I'd recorded but didn't.

Outside of Hythe was Beaulieu, which was in a national park (there are a lot of national parks in England, all pretty big – think Yellowstone size – it's pretty awesome). The theme of national parks in England seems to be wide open spaces with livestock running free, quite like some areas of Nevada that are just too big to fence in, but much greener and much prettier... and much less dry.

That day and the next were fairly uneventful, except that the hills became more intense, and the scenery followed.

Also, I met Pablo, who was from Spain, cycling across England with a GoPro strapped to his chest:

Tourists met in US: 1, after 40 days.
Tourists met in England: 1, after 3 days.

One morning I had left camp early, because that's what you do when you stealth camp, and was looking for a place to take breakfast. There aren't many picnic tables in England (and very few benches as well – mostly only in playgrounds, and then I'm the 27-year-old in the playground eating by himself), so finding one around eating time is fortuitous. Passing through Axminster, I saw a sign that said “Sports Center,” and thought, “Oooooo, that sounds like a public place that might have picnic tables!” Sure enough, there they were.

As I was unpacking my bread and whatnot I began to look around. There was a sign for “ball game area” – okay, sports center, they should have an area for ball games... but there were also parking slots for busses... and just as I realized the sports center was the sports center for a school and I was maybe on school property right before school started, a rather stern looking gentleman came over and told me I needed to leave.


Anyways, I apologized profusely (and wondered what would have happened if it had been a country where we didn't speak the same language...) and went on my way. My map had a bike path headed out of town in the direction I wanted to go, which ended up, in the spirit of public footpaths, going through a livestock area...

For this trip (about 2400 miles at this point in the story) I had been running the same tires from my old tour, which already had about 5000 miles on them, and were only the silver standard of touring tires. I had gotten about 4 or 5 flats and decided it was time to upgrade... fortunately, there was a bike shop in Colyton, and they were happy to oblige.

Problem: clean tires, dirty frame.
Solution? Clean frame.
Jk. Solution: find some mud.

Shortly thereafter, I finally got to see the coast in Sidmouth. That entire morning I knew it was there – I would catch glimpses at the tops of hills and I could smell the sea salt in the air, but I hadn't had a 180 degree view of the English coast (or any coast yet, come to think of it). I wanted to do a few more miles that day, having lost 2 hours at the bike shop (the tires I put on were a bit bigger than my previous ones and thus “putting them on” required a bit more than just a tire change).

At first I was going to try and make the ferry across the next bay, saving myself 20 miles around the bay, but then I realized that would involve rushing myself, and if you're rushing yourself, you're probably doing it wrong (in my opinion). Tours are about seeing what's on the way. So I accepted I wasn't going to make the ferry and instead of bee-lining it out, took half an hour walking the pier, soaking in the sun and the ocean and just the being of somewhere I had never been before.

It was this city here.

Then I climbed a huge hill.

The problem with missing the ferry was that I was coming into a city, and I had to make it out of the city in order to find a place to camp. The sun wasn't really setting, but in my anxious mind it was already very late, so when I made it to the town with the ferry I'd missed (Exmouth) I resolved to start asking people if they had a yard I could camp in. I was stopped by Jane, who was very interested in my tour and was a delight to talk to. I traded her touring enthusiasm for cultural anecdotes like what a cream tea and a pastie (pronounced “past-ee,” my American friends, not “paste-ee”) is. She was too busy to host a cyclist at the moment, which was fine of course, it was a delight just talking to her.

I realized in Exmouth I'd forgotten to fill up my water in the excitement of having made the ocean, and when I saw someone in their yard and asked them for the tap (American readers: a sink has a tap, but when when you need water, you just need a tap, so that's what you ask for) I was invited in for tea. Coincidentally, it was a couple catching up with a friend, and the couple was on Warmshowers, lived just across the bay, and offered their yard to me for the night. We traded touring stories, talked a bit about politics (there was an election here recently, so politics are on everyone's mind), and I went on my way with directions to a beautiful bike bath around the bay, and then to their house in Dawlish.

The path around the bay was nice and flat, and I made 15 miles in an hour, which has to be the fastest I've gone since I made it to hilly England. Having a place to stay and thus time not being of any consequence, and having not spent much that day (excluding the tires, the cost of which will get absorbed over time), I decided to treat myself to my first English pub.

I wish I could recount the rest of this night in all the detail I remember it, because it was one of those nights where everything seems to coalesce perfectly and you end up right where you're supposed to be. It really deserves a blog post of its own, and may get one at one point, but for now this will have to do...

In trying to order food and a beer (it was 8:45 and the kitchen closed at 9) I rather embarrassed myself, but also, I think, endeared myself to a few people there. The waitress, Wendy, was one of those people who harangues everyone in the most humorous way, which made it all the more difficult trying to order food, never having seen the menu, not having time to decide, and being jeered (humorously) while trying to order something I'd like but not knowing what anything was. I introduced myself to two couples there, Shaun and Dani, who lived just down the road in Dawlish, where you might recall I had a field to sleep in (“unless you've got a bed,” I said in jest to Shaun), and another couple vacationing in the area, whose names I have written somewhere but can't recall just now.

After dinner (which was quite good) and being bought a drink by the latter couple, Shaun and Dani came over and said, “Excuse me, but is he bothering you? We told him not to go about asking people for money. It's our fault, really, he only gets 5 quid allowance a week. In any case, we'll take him home now.” In all seriousness, they offered to see me to my field, because it was dark and I was moderately intoxicated and it turns out most complete strangers you've never met before are quite kind. The five of us left and poked fun at each other in the parking lot, and then Shaun and Dani got on their bikes and I on mine, and the three of us rode to Dawlish as if we were three friends out for an evening ride.

We made it through Dawlish and spent ten minutes listening to the recording I had of the directions to this field I was supposed to sleep in, and at some point decided I'd just have to go up the lane checking the house names (in rural areas of England, houses aren't numbered, they are named), and worse case I could find another field I didn't have permission to sleep in. Then we got to talking about the real stuff, like what kind of people we were and whether people were good or bad and what that even meant, and at some point Shaun looked at me and said, “Well, do you want a bed and a shower, then?”


So instead of sleeping in a field in rural Dawlish I walked uphill with two no-longer-complete strangers I'd met just a few hours earlier, and then 67 steps (“Dani will take the hill, I'll take the steps. Go whichever way you like.” “How many steps?” “42 I think.” After climbing with my 50-lb touring bike on my shoulder: “No, there's 67.”), a shower, and some apple juice later we were on the back porch smoking, watching the moon rise, and telling stories that began with, “On the night of July 21st, 1942, at 2:15 in the morning...”

That whole night I really felt like I didn't know what to do with myself, because complete strangers can be so freaking kind. It seems weird, but the moment I couldn't quite contain it was just after I'd gone in the bathroom to shower, and Dani was closing the door behind me and said, “Use whatever you need, ya?” (did I mentioned she was German?) “ – soap, shampoo, anything.” Anything? I of course wasn't going to ransack their bathroom, but I think at that moment it occurred to me that I was really safe there. I could put my feet up (and actually, Shaun had said specifically that just a moment ago) and be myself. I was safe in the physical sense – place to stay – but also in the emotional sense, and perhaps even in the spiritual sense, if that's something you believe in.

I don't cry often, not because I think crying isn't manly (whatever that means – another conversation entirely) or it would damage my ego or anything, but just because it doesn't happen that often (maybe there is something psychological there). That night, though, I was so moved that I'm not ashamed to say I was holding back tears at more times than one.

Like I said, it was one of those nights that are the reason I tour, the spontaneous encounters with strangers who bike home with you and not 12 hours later you know you want to see at your wedding. I wish I could give it a more fitting summary, but I'm coming to realize as I blog that some things cannot be summarized in a few words or even accurately depicted in a blog post. Words are an imperfect means of communication and photos help, but all too often nothing can replace or replicate the actual experience, the lightness and feeling of being on a porch at night with the moon and your friends and the intimate entwining of your lives... for however brief a time.

1 comment:

  1. Wow! What an amazing journey, an amazing adventure, and what amazing people you are meeting along the way. A wonderful slice of humankind. That goes for you as well that you are able to strike up and form relationships along the way, and lifelong ones at that. Thank you for sharing in your blog so that we can experience this vicariously. I will read this post over and over and over again. Bike on! Love you!!!