Considering War and Memory on the Normandy Coast

Fueled with our pastry-to-tent breakfast, we pulled out of Honfleur and headed west. Since we had only just the evening before decided to make the Normandy coast part of our itinerary, we hadn’t done much homework and only a rough idea of what was ahead. Our plan was to hug the coast, ending up in a campground somewhere near Juno Beach by nightfall.

Because it happened to be June 21st – mid-summer – that was a long way off. We first stopped in Trouville-sur-Mer / Deauville. Two towns converge at an inlet of the English Channel, such that you’re in one municipality on one side of said inlet, and the other when you cross a short bridge. We ducked into a shop for some provisions, and sat along the water’s edge constructing, and then consuming, a heroically delicious sandwich (if I do say so myself – it included a baguette leftover from our morning bakery delivery, our first avocado since Mexico, a soft, decadent Normandy cheese, and French moutarde!!).

We spent the early afternoon passing through dozens of seaside (channel-side) towns, which surprised us with their old-timey vacation-y feel. We rode by charming beaches dotted with mid-week vacationers. The shoreline was sprinkled with sleepy cafes, the occasional Ferris wheel or some other invented amusement, and vacation homes, not all of which might immediately invoke “seashore holiday” out of context (think dark-wood trimmed Tudor mansions with sand-castle making supplies in the driveway).

Somewhere around Ouistreham (for anyone who’s following along on the map or has a deep knowledge of northwestern French geography), we identified our desired campground destination for the evening, and confirmed that their reception would be open for another 1.5 hours. We had about seventeen more miles to ride, so we fueled up on trail mix and put our metal to the pedal (yes, ok, only Drew’s clip-in shoes have metal on them, but I simply couldn’t forgo the wordplay).

Along the way, we transitioned into the part of the Normandy beaches more focused on WWII. This sculpture made of bicycles, commemorating their important role in the war, felt particularly apropos:

We arrived triumphantly at “Canadian Scottish Campground” just before closing time. It was actually just a French campground, but took its name from the fact that the adjacent sector of Juno Beach was assigned to the Canadian Scottish Regiment as part of the D-Day invasions.

On the beach by our campground. You can maybe just make out the word Canada, written in seashells and pebbles?

The campground had the good sense to have a bar on site, and keep it open an hour longer than the reception, so upon ditching our belongings in our campsite, we ordered some cold beers and french fries and reveled in that post-ride glow.

Around 9pm, we decided it was time to venture out for some real food, though the sun remained surprisingly high in the sky and apart from our increasingly growling stomachs, it didn’t really feel like dinner time. We wandered a short distance down the beach to the official Juno Beach memorials, taking them in as daylight began to fade.

By 10pm, we found ourselves seated in a charming seafood restaurant set back from the shoreline and perched above a shimmering tidal inlet. We were a little intimidated by the menu and its price structure – catering to those tudor residents down the beach, no doubt – but decided to get into it and treat ourselves on this longest of days and shortest of nights. We enjoyed a slow meal of beautiful french cuisine, taking turns sampling each other’s seafood dishes and guessing at some of the unusual and intriguing flavors. Outside, the sun began to sink further over the water, and the beautiful summer light filled the dining room with warmth.

We walked back to our campground close to midnight, bare feet in the cooling sand and daylight still waning on the horizon. It was all terribly romantic.

Not long before midnight, midsummer!

Then we were attacked by millions of tiny crabs.

As it turned out, this beach has some kind of sunset-triggered infestation of minuscule crustaceans. They resided in a ribbon of sand about three quarters of the way from the surf to the dunes, and seemed to exist in a constant state of panic, resulting in this relentless jumping around activity which made stepping into their habitat feel like somewhat like you had placed your feet into a beehive where someone just pressed the panic button. Not knowing if perhaps that is exactly what we had done, we both started running and stifling screams, wondering if we were being kamikaze-bombed by wasps and this was the end of the line for us. But soon enough we realized all the ankle collisions with these creatures was not generating any pain, and our logic took over. We slowed to peer more closely at the sand, and identified these crazy attackers for what they really were: tiny crabs.

We moved towards higher ground and composed ourselves, our screams turning to slightly-ashamed giggles. Sigh. Happy Midsummer, folks.

Day two on the Normandy coast, we biked further west, on a terrain of mostly flat, but then sometimes very not flat, coastline. At the peak of one such climb we arrived in Arromanches-les-Bains, the town along whose coastline the Mulberry port was installed. For non-WWII aficionados, this was an artificial harbor secretly built off-shore near England by the Allies, and towed from England to France in advance of the Normandy invasion so they could unload supplies (up to 9,000 tons per day) without having to wait to conquer and use an existing port (like Le Havre). An impressive feat of ingenuity, engineering, and stealth, whose remnants can still be seen from the town’s overlook.

A war memorial on the cliffside above Arromanches-les-Bains.

We continued on, seeing more and more references to the war and its victories: the streets were lined with flagpoles with photos and names of fallen soldiers from across the allied troops, and messages of gratitude like “Merci, Americans” were written on the glass windows of roadside restaurants. Certainly one got the feeling that the very recent 75th anniversary of D-Day had much to do with all this commemoration, but also that in some respects, this part of France is in a permanent state of remembering.

We set up camp in Colleville-sur-Mer that afternoon, arriving early so we could unload and continue on to Omaha Beach. We first visited the Overlord Museum, which gave a very informative, if quite sensationalized, narrative of the military operations involved in WWII (operation Overlord being the codename for the allied invasion of Normandy). We learned a lot, and particularly appreciated this (inadvertent) homage to our profession:

Outside the museum, we sat on the sidewalk, ate some cherries, and agreed the whole exhibit was quite enlightening, but with all its detailed discussion of tanks and guns and battle paraphernalia, felt a bit like war porn.

We then rode out to the American WWII cemetery, which we had been told was a quite moving place (and is also the site of the first and closing scenes in Saving Private Ryan, for those who’ve seen it). We got there too late, though, and the gates had already been closed for the evening. Through them, one could see the resemblance to Arlington Cemetery, with American flags staked into the ground and a verdant, manicured lawn yawning to the cliffside overlooking Omaha Beach.

Then it was time to ride to the beach itself. It was a quite beautiful ride down to the water, and upon arrival, a gleaming memorial sculpture stood alone in the sand, with flowers and other offerings strewn around its base. We sat for a long while in silence, both imagining the peaceful, empty stretch of sand and ocean transformed into a military bloodbath.

Omaha Beach
Also Omaha Beach

War memorials have always felt strange to me. I never feel that they, or any other aspect of how we teach, learn, or collectively remember war, tells a complete story, nor challenges us to think critically about war as a concept. I find that we are so often directed to focus on the bravery and sacrifice of the soldiers (which is certainly merited) and, in the U.S., on the glorified protection/saving of our ‘land of the free, home of the brave’ that we never get to questions of why, for example, the conflict escalated to war in the first place; why we, a supposedly evolved species, still resort to weapons and bombs so swiftly; why the traumas of war are so readily accepted as the necessary price to pay for geopolitical aims; and so on.

Needless to say, World War II stands out as a conflict that the U.S. really couldn’t not enter, and whose entrance was critical in turning the tide of fascism and genocide; some of these ‘whys’ are more easily answered in this case than many others. And, it isn’t necessarily France’s responsibility to pose these questions, as they were a nation under siege and with these memorials, are expressing gratitude to those who came to their rescue. And, it is certainly deeply important to memorialize the loss of life and bravery of those who fought. But doing so without a critical lens – without a deep questioning of why – is, I would argue, an insult to their memory and sacrifice.

Indeed, my questions, more broadly applied, remain. For example:

  • To what extent did the unprecedented victories of WWII help to set the stage for a new post-war cultural norm in the U.S. in which the military came to be an almost untouchable, morally-superior force, seen as the best and most powerful means of protecting our interests and freedom (far more highly regarded and better funded than international diplomacy, foreign aid, and peace-building efforts)?
  • And how has this enabled and justified subsequent wars and military campaigns – all in the name of a freedom that is nowhere nearly as threatened as it was in 1941 – as well as the exponential expansion of the military industrial complex since the mid-20th century (which has led us to a reality in which the Pentagon’s budget is roughly equal to what we spend on education, housing and community development, energy and the environment, food and agriculture, science, transportation, international affairs, and veteran’s benefits combined)?
  • And what are the implications of the ever-tightening knot between militarism and patriotism, wherein those who question the unchecked institutional power of the military are considered un-American and naive?

Neither I, nor anyone else, gets to (nor is asked to) engage with these questions when we are taught about war or visit war memorials, Normandy included; as they go woefully unanswered, our collective relationship with conflict and violence remains limited, and I would argue, under-evolved. (I look forward to visiting Hiroshima and Nagasaki one day, where I understand these types of questions are more central and well-treated, and would welcome other examples that buck this trend, if you’ve seen them.)

Stepping down from the soap box, we then continued our bike tour.

On Day 3 (or day 24, for those tracking the full tour), south through farmland we went, stopping in the pretty town of Bayeux to ogle an old cathedral and wimp out on paying the 10 euros to see the famous Bayeux tapestry.

Notre Dame de Bayeux

From Bayeux we pushed on to Caen, traversing several miles of uninspired industrial landscape to get to our lodging where we’d be taking in two nights of rest. Just before our arrival we passed through a redeeming urban park that offered a nice leafy respite to all the industry, and a warm welcome to the city.

Welcome to Caen! Pronounced “Cahhhh,” which challenged us to no end.

We showered, procured some Turkish food, and watched the evening’s Women’s World Cup matches. And then, thirty-six hours later, we found ourselves leaving Caen without having left our apartment! We didn’t plan it that way, but the rest and recuperation was, apparently, much needed. This is maybe the less glamorous side of long-term travel, in which sometimes, you just need to stay indoors, recharge, and accept the fear of missing out. Maybe someday we’ll return and do this city justice. But for now, onward to Rouen!

Seeing Sights and Encountering Friends

As we were planning our ferry trip to France, we’d learned that our friends Fiona and Spencer would soon be arriving in Le Havre for the beginning of their own honeymoon. Given our current Airbnb reservation, we would miss them by a day, so we tried to extend, only to find that not only was our place booked on the following nights, but so was everywhere else in town. Chalk it up to a massive influx of Americans coming to watch Thursday’s USA-Sweden match! Fortunately for us, we’re equipped with bicycles and a tent, so we were able to secure accommodation at a campground in scenic Honfleur, just across the wide Seine River.

Honfleur isn’t more than a few miles south of Le Havre as the seagull flies, but the wolf-runs route takes some 15 miles, as you travel east to the Pont de Normandie, then back west through an odd mix of apple orchards and industrial parks. As its name would suggest, Le Havre is the second-largest commercial port in France (after Marseille), and we had the chance to ride straight through this massive working port on the way to Honfleur.

Beyond the port and before the Pont de Normandie

As we made our way toward the port, Sara took a nasty spill on a poorly-marked lip in the sidewalk, and gashed open her elbow. Fortunately, a gentleman across the street came to help. He turned out to be not only a fluent English speaker, but also a physician, a cyclist himself, and a Jew! Talk about the complete package. He inspected Sara and found that she was fine other than the cut, so we gratefully continued on our way.

Just after we arrived at our campground in Honfleur, a sudden thunderstorm opened up on us. No freaking way, we thought to ourselves; we left England to avoid exactly this! Happily, the rain soon died down and we were able to explore the town in the long midsummer light.

In addition to being a really really ridiculously good-looking coastal town, Honfleur is a center of the cider and apple brandy industries of the surrounding department of Calvados. As we found at dinner, buckwheat crepes and Emmental cheese go great with a dry cider.

We watched that night’s WWC games at a jazzy cafe (drama galore in the Scotland-Argentina game) and headed to sleep in our mercifully dry campground, by the historic lighthouse:

Here, by the by, are some key ways that camping in France is different from camping in the US:

  • Hot showers are standard issue and free to use.
  • Toilet paper and hand soap, however, are not. We found ourselves raiding restaurants’ supply and packing our pockets with paper napkins!
  • There’s always room for bike tourists, even if the campground is theoretically full.
  • And, best of all, almost all campgrounds have a bakery delivery service!! You order bread and pastries the night before, and the baker delivers them straight to the campground. This is France at its finest.

Anyway, the point of our extending our stay near Le Havre was so that we could connect with Spencer and Fiona, so the next day we took the bus (which was packed with Swedes and Americans, all sporting their respective colors) back into Le Havre and joined up with them near the waterfront. It was so great to see them as they begin their own lengthy trip! Fiona is a highly proficient French speaker, which doesn’t hurt, and a fanatical devotee (and practitioner) of women’s soccer. Spencer and Fiona are also both city planners by training, so it was an important opportunity for Sara and me to nerd out with people who are not ourselves.

Over Lebanese sandwiches for lunch, Fiona suddenly spotted Julie Foudy, a star from the legendary 1999 US women’s national team, standing next to the Yogurt Cup. It turns out that she was providing commentary for ESPN, and her producers had wrangled together a sizeable mass of enthusiastic and potentially inebriated American soccer fans to stand behind her. I reckon there hadn’t been so many Americans in Normandy since, oh, around the middle of 1944.

Our further sight-seeing in Le Havre (“au Havre,” I guess) included the city hall, a snazzy public art piece composed of brightly painted shipping containers, and St. Joseph’s Church, built by Auguste Perret, that caliph of concrete, that monarch of modularity. From the outside it looks fairly nondescript. From the inside it’s a riot of color and light, and it looked to me like nothing if not some sort of futuristic missile silo. I wonder what it looks like when they’re charging the laser?*

Although Sweden has occasionally gotten the better of the US women’s team, the Americans handily won that evening’s game, as we watched from our now-familiar cafe in Honfleur. Perhaps in celebration of this win, or more likely moved by the powerfully present memories of Americans’ last big win in France, we made a fairly abrupt decision to travel west to visit the beaches on which, 75 years to the month earlier, Allied troops reopened the western front on D-Day. We’d been planning to bike straight up the Seine to Paris, but figured the city would still be there a few days later than we’d planned, and we knew that this month represented a uniquely potent moment in which to visit these sites.

So westward it was! We set out the next day, at the crack of noon.

* I have been asked by the Seine-Maritime government to clarify that St. Joseph’s Church is not, in fact, a giant laser.

Le Havre: The City You Have to Conjugate

It’s true! While “Le Havre” may be the city’s name, things from the city are things “du Havre,” and journeys to the place are trips “au Havre.” Not the easiest place to start our French travels, linguistically speaking.

I would call Le Havre “the newest old city in Europe,” because its center was almost completely destroyed, by retreating Nazis, in 1944 and rebuilt, primarily by Auguste Perret, a so-called “pioneer of reinforced concrete,” after the end of the war. But to do so would be to ignore the 20th century history of my beloved Berlin, which was not only decimated and recreated during and after the war, but was also torn apart and welded back together in 1961 and 1989. So I’ll instead say that Le Havre was utterly transformed, to a degree I’d never before seen, by deliberate wartime destruction. Fascinatingly, the city center of Le Havre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, precisely because of the unified Modernist concrete texture of the reconstruction. Here’s a display and map of “Operation Tabula Rasa,” the intentional destruction of the city:

Because of all the concrete, and, no doubt, because of the opportunity to Build New Things, Le Havre became quite the destination for midcentury architects. Here’s a striking theater space designed by Oscar Niemeyer (of Brasília and UN Headquarters fame) which is known affectionately as the Volcano, though we preferred to call it the Yogurt Cup:

We settled into our Airbnb, venturing forth for some Turkish food, which has become an international comfort food for us in ways other folks might tap mac and cheese, or hamburgers. And why not? It’s cheap, it’s tasty, it’s prepared right in front of you, and it’s totally ubiquitous in all but the tiniest European cities. From there we progressed to our afternoon activity: attending a group-stage game in the 2019 Women’s World Cup!

Yes, France is playing host this year to the FIFA Women’s World Cup, in which the home French team has high hopes of dethroning the defending American champions to equal the success of the men’s team last year. Sara formerly played a good deal of soccer, and I’ve always been partial to the beautiful game, and women’s soccer is much less prone to flopping and unsportspersonlike theatrics, so it was great fortune that our arrival in France followed fast on the start of the tournament.

In return for playing an altogether more principled game, women soccer players are paid woefully less than their male counterparts. Although we’re arguably well within a golden age of women’s soccer, even many highly competitive women’s national soccer teams are composed of unpaid volunteers. (The Norwegian goalkeeper has a day job as a software engineer.) Ticket sales are concomitantly lower, and while all the games involving France or the USA sold out far in advance of the tournament, we were able to buy tickets to the China-Spain group-stage game, just a few days beforehand, for 9 euros apiece.

Like most folks who are paying attention to this sort of thing, I regard FIFA as an organization of more or less unalloyed criminal malfeasance and misanthropy. Nevertheless, I must concede I was impressed with the experience of getting to the game, which began with a friendly welcome from an English-language staffer and continued with a frequent, free bus shuttle to the Stade Océane a couple miles east of town.

And continuing the theme of being treated right by tentacular corporations, no sooner had Sara and I entered the stadium than we were approached by some polylingual Visa employees, offering us a backstage tour of the stadium. Our curiosity got the better of our skepticism and we were amply rewarded: the tour turned out to include walking onto the pitch itself via the players’ tunnel (quite the frisson – a French word!), then spectating the teams’ warm-ups from right beside the field. Very cool.

We also got to meet Ettie, the official mascot of the 2019 Women’s World Cup; she is apparently the daughter of the mascot of the French-hosted 1998 Men’s World Cup. I didn’t realize that mascots had lineages, but I guess everything is about ancestry and tradition in old France.

In the end the game was a scoreless tie, but it was quite exciting nonetheless: Spain, though favored to win and though able to easily and repeatedly penetrate China’s porous defensive line, couldn’t conjure up any attacks nasty enough to get past Peng Shimeng, the heroic Chinese keeper. China, meanwhile, clearly had no strategy in place to actually win the game, short of gross Spanish incompetence, and was doubtless grateful for the tie.

I spent much of the next day at La Roue Libre, a great community bike workshop felicitously located just two blocks from our Airbnb. This was a chance to install our new chains and cassettes, replace all my cables, tighten up various bolts and screws around my crankset, and finally straighten out Sara’s woeful front fender line. In the evening we enjoyed a lovely home-cooked meal and fell asleep thinking about graceful goal kicks and the adventures ahead.

Floating Into France

In the evening we arrived at the deliciously redundantly-named Portsmouth International Port, ready for our long-deferred crossing of the English Channel. (Our original plan had been to ferry from Dover to Calais around June 1st, but then we got all excited about South West England.)

Because the kind of people who tend to edit Wikipedia also tend to be excited by trains, planes, and boats, you can read all about the specific ferry we rode, here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MV_Etretat

If you’ve never ridden a bike directly onto a huge ferry, I definitely recommend the experience. In what would prove to be a harbinger of the French enthusiasm for bicycles, it was very easy to stash our bikes in a dedicated space, tied up alongside the hundreds of cars that crowded the lower decks of the ferry.

I’ve never boarded a cruise ship, but Sara, who has, tells me this was not a totally dissimilar experience. The ship was large to the point that you could hardly feel the rocking of the ocean, and because it was an overnight trip, we spent almost the whole time inside our tiny interior cabin, sleeping fitfully amid the gentle thrumming of the engines.

Sara set an alarm and took advantage of the opportunity to watch the sun rise over the English Channel. I joined her shortly before we docked in Le Havre, and together, from the upper deck, we took in the city’s striking and characteristic massing and design, a midcentury concrete paradise that felt like the whole city had been built from scratch sometime around 1950 – as, in fact, it had. (Rebuilt, actually, after its wholesale destruction by the retreating Nazis.)

In the morning, we were the first to be let off the ferry, and we rode our bikes through passport control and into the free air of France! Of course, the very first thing we did was visit a terrific bakery where the clerk didn’t speak English, affording me my first opportunity to practice speaking the French I don’t really speak.

Then it was off to our home base near the train station. The ceilings were all slanted and it was on the very top of a building without elevators, but the bed was comfy and the WiFi worked well. We had a lot to do in and around Le Havre! But first, a nap.

Weymouth to Portsmouth via the Isle of Wight

When we left Weymouth, our destination was West Lulworth, in the southeastern part of the Dorset Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. On account of more rain, we booked a room at a hostel, and upon arrival, gladly ditched our wet clothes and bikes, while we explored the region on foot. Our first stop was the Lulworth Cove Inn, where we lingered over a late lunch and spent a few hours catching up on ‘life admin’. Included in this admin was purchasing tickets for a ferry crossing into France! Our boat sailed from Portsmouth – about 80 miles east – in three days’ time.

After lunch, with the energy of a new country on the horizon, we packed up our computers and went out to explore some more of the landscapes of the one we were still in. Though the rain had abated somewhat since the morning, the wind had increased significantly. As we followed a trail out of Lulworth Cove, it became so steep and windswept that we had to crouch and cling to each other to avoid getting blown away.

With cold cheeks and hearts pounding, we finally made it to the top of the climb. We were rewarded with sweeping views of the English Channel, and a blanket of wildflowers tumbling down the cliffsides into the water.

A mile or so onward, the trail split, continuing straight along the cliff edge, or turning sharply left down a hill, at the bottom of which lay Man O’ War beach. We assumed this beach, with its velvety backdrop and icy waves, was named as such for the shape of the cove, rather than what might be in the waters, but we didn’t venture further to find out.

Continuing onward instead, we soon found ourselves about fifty steps above another beach with views of the famous grass-topped white cliffs down the coastline. On the near side of the beach, a gigantic rock formation jutted out into the English Channel. This was our first glimpse of the famous (and absurdly named) Durdle Door. The archway carved into this prehistoric limestone formation looks like a doorway, and indeed, waves were passing through as if making their dramatic entrance on to the beach ahead.

We spent a few minutes regarding the sight from above, continuing to enjoy the occasional light breeze:

And then we descended onto the beach itself, encountering a friendly group of guys from Birmingham who offered to take our photo.

Feeling the evening chill coming on, we made our way back to the hostel by way of another (the other) of the town’s pubs. It happened to be live music night, and we settled into a booth in the corner with a couple of pints to enjoy the local talent. A woman with a strong voice did a few Beatles covers, a Bob Marley song, and a creative acoustic take on Nirvana. It wasn’t until her brilliant acoustic arrangement of Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time” that we realized we were in the presence of greatness. The song will truly never sound the same.

Back at the hostel, we slept in bunkbeds for the first time in years. The next morning, we greeted partly cloudy skies (yay!) and packed up with our eyes set on our next stop: Corfe Castle. After a lovely morning of semi-sunny riding, we first glimpsed the castle from a heath where we had stopped for a snack, a few miles away. The castle was built in the 11th century on top of a significant hill, which itself sits in a gap in the Purbeck Hills, making it visible from long distances.

We parked our bikes and spent a few hours exploring this fascinating bit of English history. The castle endured a semi-demolition during the 17th century English Civil War, when it was ordered destroyed by the Parliamentarians (who had seized it from Royal control with a particularly impressive fake out which I encourage you to read up on in a moment of spare time).

Unfortunately for the Parliamentarians, castles were really built to last in the 11th century, and this one in particular was one of the first in England to be built with stone rather than earth and timber. They tried for a while to bring the whole thing down, but when it became clear a full demolition would be too costly and effortful, the Parliamentarians abandoned the project. The townspeople of Corfe Castle helped themselves to some of the remaining stones for their own use, and then the castle sat untouched in this half-ruined state for about three hundred years. In the early 1980s, the family who owned the castle bequeathed it to the U.K.’s National Trust, and soon thereafter, Corfe Castle – such as it was – was opened to the public.

We found our campground for the night a few miles down the road from the castle, and pitched our tent in the late afternoon. We learned that the closest restaurant was a 45 minute walk on some public footpaths that crossed agricultural land. This sounded like a good stretch after a day on the bike, so we set out on foot towards the Scott Arms pub. Shortly into our journey, we encountered a splendid field of multicolored cows.

We were able to silently and peacefully maneuver around them, continuing onward to our dinner without interrupting theirs. But up the hill a short ways later, we came across another herd of cows, this time directly in our path. We walked as quietly as we could, giving them as wide a berth as possible, but we were ultimately unsuccessful in avoiding their attention.

One by one, the cows stopped their snacking and stared at us. We kept walking, but then one moved towards us, and then another, and then another. Trying to stay calm, we picked up the pace towards a gate on the other side of the field. The cows followed. They did not try to impede our progress, but were intent on joining our mission; we soon had a line of about two dozen cows following us towards dinner.

Now, I’m a city girl who loves the wilderness. The in-between of farmland and its attendant creatures are not my area of expertise. But I do know that cows are vegetarians, and not known to be especially aggressive. Nonetheless, I wasn’t completely confident that we weren’t moments away from some kind of early evening cow stampede.

As their hot breath closed in on us, I started to giggle involuntarily, feeling decidedly torn between delight, amusement and panic at this situation. One particularly bold cow, clearly unafraid of humans, came so close to Drew I thought she was going to try and chew off his pants. Instead, fortunately, she was just an especially eager group leader, and a few dozen yards later, we reached the next gate and walked through without incident.

The ultimate West Wing walk and talk.

Safely on the other side of the fence, we had a good laugh and bade farewell to our new friends, feeling almost sorry that we couldn’t let them through to join us in greener pastures, as it were.

We reached our destination as the evening sun was sitting long and warm across the pub’s back patio. We ordered some dinner and enjoyed a magnificent view over the Purbeck Hills, down to Corfe Castle which sat majestically between them.

The next day, we crossed an important milestone in our tour. In the morning, we rode from near Corfe Castle to Studland, where we caught a very short ferry across Studland Bay, and then continued on to Bournemouth. Just outside Bournemouth, we crossed the 500 mile marker of our tour!

Celebrating 5-0-0 miles!

From there we hugged the shoreline onward to Lymington, where we caught our second ferry of the day across to the Isle of Wight. We arrived at our beautiful campground – an especially rural spot with only a composting toilet and giant oak trees as amenities – in the early evening.

The next morning, our last in England, began typically: in our tent, with the threat of rain. We packed up quickly, and sure enough, just as we started out towards breakfast, our daily soaking began. Sunny France beckoned. Fortunately, the rain eased after breakfast, and we rode across the Isle of Wight on some beautiful roads.

We arrived in the appropriately named Ryde, on the east side of the Isle of Wight, in the early afternoon. From there we caught our last local ferry crossing to Portsmouth, where we’d be departing for France that evening.

With a few hours before our embarkation, we had a chance to explore the Portsmouth harbor area, enjoying some seafood and a few docked tall ships.

We also visited the part of the port from which the first colonial fleets to Australia embarked.

Our last stop was the childhood home of Charles Dickens, which sits unassumingly among a cluster of modest rowhouses on a quiet residential street.

It felt appropriate to bring our time to England to close in this way, visiting these sites that, though perhaps not on the top of most tourists’ lists, nonetheless mark significant people and moments in world history. This tiny island has so much history – some for better, some for worse – all of which we were so grateful to have the opportunity learn about, think about, and examine up close during our time here.

With this on our minds, we rode over to the international ferry terminal. It’s time to go to France!

Exton to Weymouth, or: Chris and Mary, our Heroes

By this point in our tour we were very much in the heart of the dramatic South West English coast. Unfortunately, yet predictably, we were also very much in the middle of dreary South West English weather. I think from this point on we got rained on at least a little bit during every bike ride.

Rain poses several challenges for people touring from campground to campground by bike. First of all, of course, you get wet and you can get cold and that’s no fun. Second, it’s generally dreary; it’s amazing what a difference a sunny vs. rainy sky makes for your mood. Third and most challenging, though, is that if it’s raining when you’re setting up or taking down your tent, your lodging and bedding gets wet, and sleeping in a wet tent in a wet sleeping bag is NO fun. So the mercurial and malicious weather forecasts posed most of all a planning problem for us, as we needed to dodge rainfall that always seemed to be threatening to arrive in the late afternoon, prime tent-pitching time.

In the end we covered the distance from Exton to Weymouth with two sub-20 mile days on which we hightailed it to campgrounds before or after the afternoon storms and then a nearly 40-mile day where we faced down the rain, fortified with the knowledge that, thanks to the great generosity of our new friends Chris and Mary, a warm bed and the world’s best washing machine awaited us on the other side.

After leaving Elizabeth, Diana, Xander, and Teddy in Exmouth, we headed east along National Cycle Route 2, an ambitious bit of bicycle planning that aims ultimately to provide a low-stress cycling connection all the way along the southern coast of Great Britain, from Cornwall to Dover. It turns out that “low-stress” has more than one meaning; planners obviously sought to minimize riders’ exposure to large volumes of high-speed car traffic, but apparently did not make any attempt to avoid any number of super-steep climbs that would be strenuous for an unloaded road cyclist and are plainly infeasible for folks on loaded touring bikes.

In fact, riding along the coast of southern England is kind of like automatic, unavoidable interval training: climbs never last more than a mile or so, but they occur very frequently and they’re really steep (regularly over 10 percent grade, and occasionally sustaining pitches above 15 percent). Of course, you don’t get to enjoy a coastline specifically known for rugged, vertiginous cliff faces and sharp river valleys without necessitating a few brutal climbs. This was the downside of Cycle Route 2. The plus side is twofold: first, it was nice to follow posted signs rather than having to constantly be straining to hear and decipher spoken instructions from my phone app; and second, it’s remarkably beautiful.

From Exton we were making good progress eastward, including some lovely riding along the river Otter and a mid-afternoon tea stop at an old water mill in Otterton.

Then, partway up a gradual and exceptionally scenic climb, the skies opened up and we spent about half an hour standing under a tree, sharing an umbrella, wagering that surely this downpour would come to an end soon. Eventually, though, there was nothing for it but to continue riding and to shelter in the nearby fishing/vacation town of Sidmouth. All we had to do was walk our bikes down the nearly 20-percent, rain-slick slope down into town.

Fortunately the views in and around Sidmouth were exceptional (the rain had abated by the time we arrived):

and a charming park/overlook held a remarkably poetic interpretive sign:

Then we huffed and puffed and walked our bikes up blisteringly-steep Salcombe Hill and were rewarded with a beautiful rural campsite overlooking the English Channel:

The next day began with a descent into picture-postcard-perfect Branscombe (which we were too busy riding through to capture), then another eye-watering climb up out of town. Then we enjoyed a stellar breakfast at the Hideaway, nestled among the chalk cliffs of Seaton. I waded into the bracing, crystalline waters of the Channel:

This was another day cut short by the threat of rain. We found a cute campsite run by a control freak named Joy (she was perfectly kind, but there were explanatory labels on absolutely everything in the bathroom and kitchen) that was right by a pub where we could get a warm dinner as the rain fell. The campground also had super fast WiFi, which struck us as a funny amenity, but became incredibly valuable when we wanted to watch a Women’s World Cup game in our tent!

The next morning we knew we had to cover the rest of the distance to Weymouth, but first we had to find breakfast. Unfortunately, the pub was closed until lunchtime, so on we rode – to another pub that turned out to be closed. Finally, thirteen miles into our ride, we reached a pub in Symondsbury where we gorged ourselves on essentially an early lunch. What a relief! On we rode, across incredible landscapes and under threatening skies that finally opened up onto us with about five miles left. But we had an actual roof to sleep under that night, so we knew we just needed to get there.

A little background here. As I mentioned in an earlier post, we met Chris and Mary in west London while buying Sara’s bike from them in May. As we talked with them then, they enthused about cycling in Dorset and noted that they had a second home in Weymouth, on the Dorset coast, and encouraged us to let them know if we found ourselves headed that way.

Chris is a huge bike nerd, and I say that with affection and admiration. When we were examining Sara’s bike, he was able to rattle off details from the sprocket tooth counts (geeky, but not extraordinarily so) all the way down to the brand and make of spokes in the wheels (I could maaaaybe tell you what kind of spokes I have on my bikes, and I built those wheels myself! This was for a wheelset he hadn’t even built).

Mary and Chris are both retired now. Chris was a pilot in the Royal Navy, flying both helicopters and light aircraft; after he left the Navy, he worked for about 20 years as a commercial pilot for British Airways. Mary had been a high school teacher, with a background in psychology. They moved around a lot when Chris was in the Navy – I believe Chris was involved in the Falklands War (or Malvinas War, I suppose, from the Argentinians’ perspective) of 1982 – but settled in Uxbridge, near BA’s home airport of Heathrow, when Chris moved to the private sector. They bought their home in Weymouth about six years ago, finally realizing a longstanding dream of returning to Dorset, where they had both lived many years prior.

Chris and Mary are about our parents’ age, and we’re about their children’s age. So the kinship we felt with them had the intriguing dual nature that we felt like both their friends/peers and a little bit like their kids.

Anyway, their home in Weymouth was a sight for sore eyes, as it had begun to rain and we were tired and wet, and I don’t know whether we, or our bikes, were a bigger mess. We all embraced, and Mary put on a pot of tea. We hosed down our bikes and dumped literally all of our clothes into their washing machine. Then we took a fantastic shower and put on robes – fuzzy robes! This was indeed a far cry from tent camping in the damp English heath. Mary welcomed us warmly to a home-cooked dinner, which was accompanied by some Australian wine from their atypically large wine stash: they’re celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary in just two weeks, so their beautiful home was fairly brimming with wine, which they claimed was for the expected guests. (And I’m sure it was!)

We stayed with Mary and Chris for two nights, which meant we had a chance to go out sightseeing together the next day. They were so kind to drive us around and show off the best of Weymouth and the surrounding area! We headed in to the center of town and walked around an 18th-century fort, then out on a pier to catch a great view of the characteristically Georgian row houses along the beach, which was a favorite of George III himself. (He had a royal bathing carriage that would roll straight into the water, allowing him to swim like a king.) It being the month of the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings, we were moved to note that Weymouth was one of the major ports of embarkation for Allied troop transports headed to Normandy.

Then we drove south onto the Isle of Portland, where Portland stone comes from, past Chris’s old naval base, and down to the Portland Bill, a windy bluff jutting into the English Channel. After that, we climbed up the limestone ridge above the city to an old crossroads where the Roman road between Weymouth and Dorchester crosses a line of ancient burial mounds and earthen forts.

At dinner that evening, we had a chance to talk politics. Chris and Mary both voted Leave in the Brexit referendum of June 2016, but not, I think, without some reservations and certainly not without careful consideration. They felt that the European Parliament system essentially creates a faceless bureaucracy where it’s not clear who is representing you, or whether your interests are in fact being represented. They also felt that the EU had not been receptive enough to earlier British dissatisfaction, so for them (and, I suspect, for many others) the referendum was the opportunity to register frustration with the system, albeit a blunter instrument than they would have wanted. Interestingly, they noted that the referendum format itself is uncommon in the UK and was probably poorly implemented: in most countries where referenda are frequent, they have force only if high voter-participation and super-majority thresholds are met, but the Brexit vote was a simple majority vote with no turnout requirement.

Of course Sara and I didn’t get to vote on Brexit, but if we had done so, we would have voted Remain. And being members of the American “coastal elite,” we’ve mostly been surrounded by Remainers, who have presented a range of arguments (that I mostly find compelling) and scorn for Leavers (that I hadn’t thought too much about prior to our conversation this evening). But the crux of the conversation was Chris’s impassioned defense of his intelligence and integrity: by all means, he said, debate the merits of his points of view – “but don’t call me stupid!”

Frankly, I myself have often thought and said profoundly unkind things about Americans – in the abstract – with whom I disagree politically, so Chris’s exhortation was a valuable reminder to me not to denigrate people who see things differently. (I don’t want to be naive about this. It seems pretty clear in 2019 that not all American political actors are engaging in good-faith debate, and it is dangerous and foolish to “play fair” when others have no intention of doing the same. But that’s a separate problem. In general, “don’t be an asshole” feels like a pretty good operating principle, in politics and elsewhere.)

At any rate, we were stuffed from Mary’s delicious roast pork and risotto, and so much clotted cream, so we soon headed to bed. And so it was that, with deep gratitude, full stomachs, and a valuable lesson learned, we bade Chris and Mary farewell for now and pedaled off east into the heart of the Jurassic Coast. I can only hope our paths will cross again someday soon, so we might return their generous hospitality and continue the friendship!

Mary and Chris sending us off with tour day count #17!

To the south coast!

Days 11-13 of our bike tour took us from Cheddar (in Somerset) down to Exmouth, a small city in Devon at the point where the River Exe meets the English Channel.

Our first day was a little anti-climactic, as our carefully plotted route was cut short by some heavy rain and wind. We took shelter in a pub while our clothes dried and fingers warmed up. After an hour of watching the skies and the highly unreliable forecast, we decided not to risk another drenching and instead set up camp in a nearby campground (by the time we arrived, the rain had stopped and the sun had, of course, broken through the clouds).

The campground owner was an extremely warm and welcoming woman named Jackie who showed us to our campsite and then proceeded to tell us how much she liked “our Trump.” Ugh. We left quickly and went to a nearby pub for dinner and played darts with the teenage bartender who told us about his life growing up in Australia and his aspirations in the hospitality industry.

The next morning, day 12, we packed camp and left early (avoiding the chance of running into Pro-Trump Jackie again) and rode seven miles through beautiful country side to the blue-collar town of Bridgwater. I appreciated this stop as it afforded a glimpse into the more working-class side of England that had largely been missing from our travels to date. We stopped in at a unassuming diner-type spot for an excellent full English breakfast (pictured below; the visual is pretty key to understanding this legendary meal) and then rode another 40 miles, encountering only one (mercifully brief) rain storm en route.

The last leg of the day’s route put us on the luscious Great Western canal path where snacked on our fair share of flying bugs as an appetizer before dinner.

The next morning, day 13, began with the acquisition of a new claim to fame. After packing up camp, we continued along the Great Western canal path in dappled morning sunlight, which eventually let us out onto a country road, which soon thereafter brought us to Ivan’s Cafe.

Picture a big tract of farmland, with a single farmhouse that had been converted into a coffee shop. Hop off your bike and step inside and you will find the distinct and inviting smell of perfectly-roasted coffee beans being elegantly converted into professional espresso drinks. You will also find vintage bicycles mounted on the walls, books about cycling on the tables, and tastefully framed posters of some great bands of the early to mid 2000s as added decor. A friendly barista will take your order, bring you delicious food and drink, and you will begin to consider how one might remain in this location for much longer than planned.

You’ll eventually will yourself to get up, but before leaving, your ever-curious husband will ask the guy behind the bar about the severely underpriced bike for sale behind him. They’ll get to chatting and said guy (who, turns out, is Ivan himself) start nerding out about bikes. Then maybe you’ll ask Ivan how he ended up owning a bike-themed cafe and a Linea 3 grouphead La Marzocco espresso machine (flashing your own nerd card for a brief moment) in rural England?

Then this real friendly, flannel wearing, hands-that-do-real-work having dude will explain to you that he was in a band – Mumford & Sons, maybe you’ve heard of them? – and got really into specialty coffee while on tour in the U.S. Then he broke his neck (we didn’t ask further) and decided to quit the band and return to the UK.

“Got it. Makes sense!” I think I said, doing my best impression of someone cool. Noticing the end of a passing rain shower, we decided to make a dash for it and bid farewell to Ivan, the bikes on the wall, the espresso machine, and Ivan’s Cafe .

A few hours and hills later, we entered into Devon! I’m not sure if it was the post-rain sun or what, but the hillsides looked appreciably greener and more alive here.

We rode further southward through the outskirts of Exeter and down the River Exe to our Airbnb, where we had planned to stay for a few nights to rest and avoid a particularly torrential rainstorm predicted for the following day. After settling in (and getting very excited for a night’s sleep in a real bed! With real sheets! And our very own private bathroom!) we walked twenty minutes down the road to the Puffing Billy pub for dinner.

Here we met Jackson and Adam, two super friendly guys about our age who had both done some extensive bike touring – including down the California coast! – and invited us for a beer. We passed a good hour or two talking about everything from surfing in Peru to Brexit to the wisdom of The Onion, and adventures in deep sea oceanography. We’ve met so many people during our travels, but it’s fair to say Jackson and Adam felt like real kindred spirits. Hope to see you out there on the road, guys!

After dinner we strolled over to the local train station on the water to take in the evening sunset, just before the rains came:

The following few days included some exploration of Exmouth (including dipping our toes into the very cold English Channel for the very first time!); enjoying the start of the Women’s World Cup; getting acquainted with cream tea in its place of origin; going for a few lovely rural and unloaded sunset rides and; a highlight, breakfast with my old colleague Elizabeth and her family, who happened to be on vacation in nearby Cornwall!

We made it to the English Channel! Here I am attempting one of those jumping photos for the first time. Success, no?
Pinkies out!!
Golden hour 🙂
With Elizabeth and her wife Diana, their super precocious and fun kid Xander, and their one year old, Teddy! Such a great little reunion.

After breakfast we made a turn for the east, starting our journey that would eventually lead us to a ferry crossing of the English Channel into France, where le croissant and la baguette beckon. But first, to Weymouth!

From(e) Sloe Gin to Cheddar by way of the Worship of Rye

Ian’s wonderful hospitality made it hard to leave Salisbury. We wanted to stay and sample more homemade jams, bread and booze, help with the build out of his newest garden beds, talk politics, and lounge in his beautiful conservatory. Alas, as they say, fish and houseguests start to smell after three days, so we bade farewell and pushed onward, to Frome.

A purple wildflower treat en route to Frome.

Frome is a small city about 30 miles northwest of Salisbury, known for its progressive politics. It also happened to be the place we spent the evening of the Champions League final game, and at Ian’s recommendation we watched in a fun bar with some die hard Liverpool fans. When they beat Tottenham Hotspur (it was a rare English v English matchup), one fan stood up and yelled “Tottenham! Scum of the earth!!!!!” and everyone cheered; a taste of real British fandom.

We left the bar at the tail end of daylight, and made our way to the other side of town and across a few fields to our lodging for the evening: a lovely campsite on a vegetable farm called Vallis Veg. The field crossing under moon-lit clouds was a real treat, and led to a patch of tall grasses and trees enclosing a sweet little enclave where we had pitched our tent earlier in the day.

We slept – always easily and well after a long day of riding – and the next morning, retraced our steps back into Frome for breakfast.

Field crossing back to Frome by daylight.

Hungry and ready for caffeine (at least, I was), we found our way to the magical Rye Bakery. Walking in, this place felt like the manifestation of all of our cafe and bakery dreams and schemes. Rye Bakery is located in what once was an old church. The altar now overflows with stacks of fresh loaves of bread beneath a beautifully preserved old organ. The pews have been refinished and turned to serve as seating on the perimeter of the cafe (not pictured). The spaces outside the main sanctuary serve as a community gathering rooms and meeting space, and outside, a lawn provides additional seating and a sumptuous vegetable garden. The menu is simple but thoughtful: we sampled several buttery pastries, a couple of egg dishes, a few excellent cappuccinos, and of course, bought a loaf of bread. We lingered and lingered, and reluctantly tore ourselves away only after we could eat and drink no more.

The bread sits where the altar used to!!

Outside, we found a lively farmer’s market underway, stalls filling the already narrow streets and people snaking among the vendors to purchase tasty snacks. We stocked up on a few items ourselves, and returned to our campsite to head out of town.

Next stop, Cheddar!

It began to rain just as we started rolling, and the day’s ride quickly devolved into a trying struggle to stay warm and dry. After about an hour of wet riding, we stopped in at a pub for a cup of tea to warm up. We met a motley crew of patrons, all of whom were – more wisely – whiling away the gray day indoors. Slightly recharged by the tea, we returned to the saddle, but the hours ahead persisted in their cold, uninspiring drizzle.

On point.

Just beyond the peak of our last climb of the day, Drew spotted a farm stand selling strawberries and clotted cream and pulled over to make a purchase. After some patient coaxing (I was in a soggy, grumpy, stubborn, pouty mood), he persuaded me to try one.

It was transformative!

From the farm-stand-on-hilltop, sweet strawberry dipped in cream in hand, we could see a vast swath of western English landscape, down to where our campground awaited, and across the skies to a heavenly break in the otherwise thick clouds. We rode the remaining few miles energized by fructose and the increasing late afternoon sun. We pulled up to the Cheddar Bridge campsite much drier and happier than we had been since breakfast.

We had planned the next day as a rest day, so naturally we decided to hike a gorge. Cheddar Gorge, to be precise. This limestone rock formation cuts a near-500 foot deep crevice into the landscape, and also is home to the Cheddar Man: Britain’s most ancient complete human skeleton, estimated to be about 9,000 years old. (Sorry if you were hoping Cheddar Man was a superhero of some kind. I was too.)

After our hike, we returned to the town of Cheddar by way of another of the region’s star attractions: a cheese factory! Even though the town is the namesake and origin of the world famous dairy product, the volume of cheddar cheese production is actually relatively low here these days (residents of Vermont would be unimpressed). Nonetheless, there is a small award-winning producer still in operation who keeps their factory open to the public. You can pay a small fee to learn about the cheesemaking process, watch artisans at work, and sample cheeses.

Obviously, we did that without hesitation. Alongside a small exhibit showing some of the early tools used to make cheese, a helpful video narrated the key steps of production (which involve several consecutive days of work and waiting, and then months and years to let the cheese age). The exhibit then opens up to an actual production room, where you can watch whatever stage of cheesemaking happens to be underway while you’re there. We watched with admiration as a skilled professional carried out the intricate and sometimes quite laborious tasks of the curd stage. As other visitors came and went, we remained with faces pressed up to glass, riveted by this cheesemonger at work.

In the background, the cheese is in an early stage of the production process – going through a shredding machine prior to being pressed overnight into rounds. In the foreground, the bins into which the newly shredded cheese would be placed for pressing. We were somewhat bemused to learn that the verb “to cheddar” (distinct from the proper noun) refers to a relatively minor part of the production process for this type of cheese. In fact, “to cheddar” is just to cut up big slabs of curd (cheese-in-the-making) and turn them over by hand so they release moisture gently and gradually.

Taking note of our unusually long attention span for his work, the cheesemonger stepped out of the room to greet us. He told us he was a former baker who got into cheese because “the hours are better.” We liked that, and him, a great deal.

We then had the chance to sample over a dozen different kinds of cheddar cheeses, including those of varied ages, and some with additional flavors. I was particularly amused that they had one with Marmite, England’s inferior, and frankly downright gross, take on my beloved Vegemite.

We left with a single block of cave-aged cheddar (being on bicycles and having to carry everything we own has really helped us show restraint where we might otherwise have gone totally nuts at the cash register) and some pickled jam, and headed back to our campsite to snack and plot the route for our coming days, as we turned our bikes towards the south coast!

A Warm Welcome in Salisbury

We arrived in Salisbury to be met by the remarkable hospitality of one Mr. Ian Lovett, who had agreed to host us via Warmshowers, which is like Couchsurfing but specifically for people on bike tours. This was our first time using Warmshowers and I was amazed at the rapidity and positive tone of the responses we received, not just from Ian and his partner Penelope (whom we didn’t get to meet as she was out of town) but also from several other potential hosts we reached out to.

Ian’s whole existence is a case study in life goals, which is to say, he’s living the good life. He’s lived just west of Salisbury for more than twenty years now, handily mending and expanding his ancient farmhouse over the decades. (The building has an old half and a new half; the new half dates to around 1910.) He was recently made redundant at an IT firm and gladly embraced a slightly early retirement. Now he bikes a lot, tends a massive and inspiring garden, reads stimulating books, and produces home-made delicacies ranging from sourdough bread to sauerkraut to sloe gin. I’d only ever had a tenuous concept of what sloe gin is, but by the end of our time with Ian we were totally enamored of the stuff. (Sloes are a sort of tiny, bitter plum, and you put a bunch of sloes and sugar into some gin and let it sit for a while. Conceptually, very similar to limoncello.)

Ian was even so gracious as to welcome us to stay for two nights, so we got to take in some of the town, too. Night 1 we spent cooking with Ian, me turning some chickens on the grill while we all took turns stripping huge spinach leaves straight off the feet-long stalks.

In the morning we ate fresh bread and then biked over to the famous Salisbury Cathedral, about which I can provide some factoids:

  • Built in the 13th century! Constructed in “only” 38 years!
  • Has been since 1549 the tallest cathedral in England! (Not because it built up higher in 1549, but because the spire of Lincoln Cathedral collapsed that year.)
  • Sits atop a huge aquifer and therefore requires careful management of the water table to remain structurally stable! There is a dip stick in the middle of the nave and if water levels fall too much, engineers can open sluicegates on nearby rivers to refill the aquifer.
  • Houses what is possibly the oldest working clock in the world, a gnarly lump of gears dating back to the late 14th century! The clock has no face – it just triggers the chiming of bells – but that only adds to the mystique!!
  • Is the home of another of the four extant copies of the Magna Carta, issued, of course, in 1215! (Astute readers will recall we already saw one, at the British Library, but the Salisbury copy is remarkably, even gorgeously, legible.)
You’re just going to have to trust us on the beauty and legibility.
  • Has a famous pipe organ that was regrettably out of service but happily this was due to a major renovation effort in 2019 that includes a great mini-exhibition on organ technology and repair!
  • Was currently hosting an art installation called “GAIA” that consists of an enormous globe Earth hanging in the cathedral nave! We calculated that given the scale of the map, we typically traveled just over an inch’s worth on our cycling days.

Night 2 we finally managed to counter Ian’s hospitality with a little bit of our own by taking him out for dinner to the local pub. I tried faggots (pork offal meatballs; better than you’d think and the name doesn’t raise an eyebrow in England) and we shared some real ales and pondered what it means to be a local in a place, to set down roots. On the two-minute walk back to Ian’s home we encountered a neighbor who enthused about Devon and Dorset, further cementing our newfound resolve to extend our bike tour in England and visit those places.

And so, with deep gratitude to and admiration for Ian, and after the hasty purchase of some more bib shorts and rain gear, we were off, westward!

Bikes loaded outside the Wellington (Ian’s house) and Ian helping us with our tour day count photo log; Day 9!

To Salisbury! Via a few Henges.

Days six, seven and eight of the bike tour were our first several days of consecutive riding. We got in some good training, a few sights, a range of breakfast experiences, and encountered our first English rains.

We rode out of Oxford and made our way across the Vale of White Horse. This region is named for the figure of a white horse that was dug and carved into a chalky hillside in the region sometime between 3200 and 600 BC. It is still visible!

We set up camp on the very edge of North Wessex Downs – another Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. After hanging our formerly-trapped clothing out to finish drying, we headed down the hill we had just rode up in search of dinner.

The walk to dinner turned out to be a stunning meander through a forest on the other side of which sat a glorious sunset over farmland. We encountered some horses taking in their evening meal.

It was here, considering the timelessness of this place, that Drew commented that perhaps we might better empathize with those who resist change. As urban planners, we are typically preoccupied with the advantages of progress and frustrated (infuriated, offended) by the problematic stance of those who want to keep things ‘just as they are’. But here in this magnificent field, at the edge of a beautiful and quiet farming town, the fear of disruption is easier to understand, and a desire to conserve a particular way of life, easier to respect.

I countered that this context is profoundly different than that of cities, which are by nature dynamic and evolving places with an imperative to accommodate the much more diverse needs of a much more diverse population. But does that take these kinds of places, and their communities, ‘off the hook’? What role do, or might, rural communities have in accommodating the people, jobs, and society that better reflect our globalized world? And how does this differ from suburban communities (where much of these tensions are most acute)? We have since been considering more deeply what it means to insist on an agenda of progress and change.

The next morning we packed up camp and, unable to locate any nearby establishments open for business, enjoyed a gourmet breakfast from our very own mobile pantry!

Babybel-on-Bread. MMM.

Thus thoroughly sustained, we rode a few miles under increasingly graying skies. A woman stopped us on the road just near the church below, to tell us about said church and a nearby cafe where we ‘MUST go for a cuppa’. We visited the church on her instruction, and then proceeded to the cafe, grateful for her guidance. When we walked in, she was there, having her own tea and scone. Small town.

As we enjoyed some tea and surprisingly well-executed bagels with lox and cream cheese, the rain began. We emerged from the cafe in our highest fashion, ready to take it on.

We spent the rest of the day unsuccessfully dodging rain showers across the North Wessex Downs AONB. Though it was chilly and damp, the rain also afforded some spectacular lushness in the more densely-wooded parts of the ride.

In the mid-afternoon we detoured to Avebury on the recommendation of Diane (of Diane and Joe Chatfield). Avebury is basically a smaller version of the world-famous Stonehenge, with far fewer tourists. You can also go up to the stones and touch them, which I made sure we did repeatedly.

Avebury and a cup of tea to warm up.

Maybe 15 miles down the road, increasingly cold and pushing through some killer hills, we were thrilled to finally arrive at the Woodbury Inn – the campsite and pub that would be providing us food and shelter for the evening. The rains relented and we set up camp in a lovely spot right at the bend of the River Avon. Soon, a welcome committee stopped by to ensure all was in order.

All was mostly in order, but more so when we had a hot shower, and then went inside the Woodbury Inn to discover it was curry night. We feasted on palak paneer, malai kofta, tikka masala, pappadum, naan…. And then we slept. Really well.

We began the third day of our journey to Salisbury at the Red Lion Inn. I had heard about this Michelin-starred restaurant near our campsite, and they offered a full English breakfast by reservation only. We couldn’t resist this admittedly silly indulgence, and it didn’t fail to deliver. We dined on freshly squeezed juices and coffee, homemade toast and locally made jams and marmalades, and of course, the almost-overwhelming platter that is the Full English: eggs, sausage, baked beans, sautéed mushrooms, roasted tomato, bacon, and usually some kind of deep-fried bread (because why not).

It was a gastronomically satisfying 24 hours, and certainly made up for our babybel-on-bread breakfast from the day prior.

Heading off a food coma, we did some stretches on the lawn of the Red Lion Inn and hopped back on our bikes towards the day’s highlights: Woodhenge and Stonehenge! The former is a lesser-known site about 2 miles from Stonehenge. Like Avebury, it is far less touristed, but no less mystifying than either. The site is basically a field with a series of timbered postholes in concentric circles, dating back to around 2000 BC. It also has a evidence of child sacrifice on site, so of the three sites in question, this won the award for ‘most disturbing’.

Here I am at Avebury, still feeling the effects of breakfast:

Soon thereafter, we made it to Stonehenge!

Fortunately, there was a bike path that allowed us to get quite close without paying a fee, and kept us away from the most intense throngs of tourists. It was an odd sight: hundreds of people standing on a path, looking at some rocks and relentlessly snapping selfies. And yet, there we were, ogling this strange piece of ancient history ourselves, and capturing the majesty in our own inverted camera lens.

After about 15 minutes of contemplating this structure, making many, many references to Ylvis’s important artistic contribution to the subject at hand, and eating an apple, we pedaled on. An interesting series of non-roads led us southward through farmland and forests, until we reached the edge of Salisbury. We stopped in at a grocery store for a bottle of wine for our future host, and at about 6pm, pulled up to the Wellington, met Ian, and got acquainted with our home for the next two nights!