On the morning of May 20, we bid a bittersweet farewell to Crouch End and rode across town to Paddington Station. From there we took a train out of London to Bristol and from Bristol we rode to Thornbury. From Thornbury we went to Bath, and so began our bike tour. The end.
Just kidding! In reality, our first day on the bikes (names forthcoming) was a far more texture-filled tale of highs and lows, triumphs and defeats.
We hadn’t slept much the night before, and wobbled with our newly and quite heavily loaded steeds through London traffic to catch our train. When we boarded, we (perhaps naively) didn’t anticipate having to unload all our gear in order to store our bikes for the two hour ride. This resulted in an awkward game of passenger tetris while we moved bikes and panniers and people around in a sometimes fruitless dance to get everything situated. Some twenty minutes later, sweaty but finally in our seats, we hungrily devoured our last sausage rolls from Dunn’s (which Diana, in her infinite generosity and angelic-ness, had picked up for us that morning) and watched the city turn to countryside as we hurtled west.
We pulled in to Bristol around mid-day, and reloaded our bikes on the station platform. We rode a short distance into the town center and paid a visit to a several-hundred-year-old covered market with stalls selling a range of tempting snacks. After a meal of Singaporean rice, aubergine and chicken (when in England, right?) we made our way over to a river-side cidery, where we sampled a range of the local speciality. I confirmed my vague recollection that I think most alcoholic ciders taste like rotting wood, but Drew enjoyed them and we took the chance to read up on Bristol’s fascinating and progressive history in the afternoon sun.
After a bit more exploring in the town center, we headed towards Thornbury, our destination for the evening. Thornbury is a community about 15 miles to the north of Bristol, and the home of Diane and Joe Chatfield and their four kids Katherine, Rebekah, Caleb and Jacob (and temporarily, their two houseguests Cristina and Kylie). My ever-thoughtful aunt Marj reached out while we were in London and, knowing we’d be touring a bit in England, offered to connect us with her nephew Joe and family. They are originally from Hunstville, Alabama, but have lived in Thornbury for the past several years (on account of Joe’s job with an American company working on a contract with the British government). Always eager to connect with new ‘family,’ we leapt at the offer and planned our first day cycling accordingly.
By design, and as with other legs of our travels so far, we did very little detailed planning for this bike tour. Our general approach has been “do a little essential homework, keep our eyes peeled and ears pricked for local direction, and see where the wind takes us.” This is all the more feasible in the time of LTE, and we have leveraged a few technology tools to enable and enhance our more wandering style.
For example, we downloaded OsmAnd, an app which provides maps and customizable route-planning specifically for cyclists. It allows you to elect certain route preferences such as ‘avoid hills’ or ‘prefer byways’ so that you can chart a course that reflects your priorities among directness, ease, rurality, etc. Equally useful, you can turn on the app’s version of Siri, and a lovely lady guides you through your ride as you make the required turns.
For the first part of our first real ride – out of Bristol – this lovely lady was very, very busy. There were a bevy of tunnels, roundabouts, construction sites and urban parks we had to navigate through, not to mention the whole riding on the left side of the road thing. When we finally emerged from the core of the city, the lady led us on to the main north-south A road*, with drivers whizzing by. (*England has a hierarchy of roads, with M roads being full-blown freeways, A roads serving as major arterials, B roads being minor arterials, and roads without a prefix generally being minor residential roads or country lanes.) We pedaled on, wary of our less-than-stellar start, but still happy to be on two wheels and reveling in the novelty of this new adventure.
Soon thereafter came The First Headwind. And not longer after that, The First Hill. Upon approach, this Hill loomed threatening, appeared endless, and I’m pretty sure it was frowning at me. Six weeks of eating tacos in Mexico definitely kept my jaw muscles in top condition, but as I began pedaling up this thing, my other muscles quickly protested in shock and horror. I could hardly believe how much my bicycle’s loaded weight was pulling me back down the hill, and how much the cruel winds out of the north were pushing. I could hear the gods of cycling and hill-making having a roaring laugh and high-fiving over my misfortune.
Somewhere around 17 million hours later, I summited the frowning giant, gasping but relieved to discover my heart was still mostly functional. I guzzled half a bottle of water, ignored Drew’s amused but empathetic facial expression, and we pushed onward.
We soon turned left off the A road and suddenly, found ourselves on a quiet country lane with hedgerows and expansive farmland stretching out on either side of us. The sounds of cars receded and were replaced by chirping birds and the almost-silent whir of our bike tires. After a few moments taking in this decidedly new scene, Drew turned around and we were both smiling from ear to ear; this was what we came for.
We pulled up to the Chatfields’ door just before dinner time. Inside, Katherine was chopping vegetables and preparing a stir fry. Diane warmly welcomed us, gave us a tour of their beautiful home (The Orchard, it is called), and poured us two most-welcome cold drinks. Joe got home from work not long after, and after reminding ourselves how we were related, we all spent a lovely summery evening eating, drinking and chatting on their porch and in their hot tub (a godsend on this particular day of muscular heroism).
We slept like we’ve never slept before, and awoke on day two of the tour to another sunny morning. We shared coffee and scones in the kitchen, and before we knew it, our bikes were reloaded and we were pulling away from The Orchard, full of gratitude, breakfast, and anticipation for the day ahead. We will always be thankful for our hosts and their hospitality as we began this two-wheeled adventure. Next stop, Bath!