When traveling long term, you strangely become both more tolerant of discomfort (especially when out of your control), and obsessed with small comforts. And sometime the smallest things can give you a feeling of satisfaction in an often disorienting lifestyle.
For example, our little down travel pillows always provide a modicum of comfort, even over the hardest “pillow” found in some lodging. Carrying our own salt, pepper, picnicware, and hot sauce brightens otherwise dull meals or take out on the road.
Another way to ease the stress of constant travel is to return to a place…maybe a few times. It’s always easier once you know the lay of the land, favorite neighborhoods, and how to get out of the train station in the right direction. In the past year we’ve been lucky enough to visit London and Paris multiple times, in completely different neighborhoods. Plus, you can venture deeper into new places, see obscure sights, and generally settle in with the more relaxed lens of a quasi-local.
As we left the Netherlands for the UK, the warnings of an impending heat wave across Northern Europe were growing, so we thought about where we could ride it out as we approached the next leg across of our planned 4 month summer European cycling, train, and boat tour.
Our primary goals in the UK were to see our friends in Wales, and connect to a ferry to Ireland, so we did not plan on too much cycling. The heat wave clinched the decision to settle in somewhere for a longer stay. So we looked back on places that we could (somewhat) easily get to with our bikes on trains…our train from the ferry landing in Harwich went to London, but London would be too hot(100+) and is $$$ in August, plus we wanted to get further west where it would be a bit cooler, and closer to a house sit we had scheduled in Gloucester.
So we decided on Bristol for a third visit, via a single train transfer in London. The only catch was one train came into Liverpool Station and the other departed from Paddington. But no problem on bikes, as the 10km ride across London on a Saturday morning was a pleasure due to all the new cycling infrastructure. London’s wide new paths, protected lanes and bike signals have made cycling a much more viable alternative in the Capital.
Bristol was also a good base for some day cycling trips and we could go back to our favorite falafel stand, noodle restaurant, and cat pub!
And yes, we could go back to the S.S. Brittanica and Brunel Museum…and for free! Ha, even the staff was impressed (and a bit surprised) when Cheryl pulled out our printed tickets from last year, which they sell at the relatively high price of £20 each, with the caveat that the tickets are good for a year.
Of course, most non-locals never make it back within the year…but these frugal Americans did! (Thanks to Cheryl -:) We enjoyed seeing more of the museum that we missed on the first visit due to school groups and also took another walk through the ship. This was a small satisfaction for these frequent travelers!
We spent one warm night in the top floor of a old school hotel in leafy Clifton (nicely near the Suspension bridge), but then strategically moved to an air conditioned room downtown for the peak days of the heat wave.
It WAS hot and the Hilton Garden Inn’s British AC system could barely keep up, especially when the sun bore down on our windows in the afternoon. Luckily we like this hotel due to its adjacency to a small park with nice mature trees that cooled it down a bit.
This heat wave set all-time records throughout the UK…43c/104f in a land not adapted in culture, architecture, or A/C systems to such heat. Southern England is now experiencing a drought along with about 50% of the rest of Western Europe. The adaptation to the climate change that seems to be happening is going to be difficult, expensive, and disruptive to life as we know it….and of course, we are the lucky ones that can afford to move and adapt, while other poorer and more impacted nations suffer unduly for greenhouse gases they contribute little to generating.
But let’s move on to happier topics, like house bunnies. We had a nice 70km cycle from Bristol to Stroud, a pleasant historic canal town on the edge of the Cotswolds. It was a little hectic getting out of Bristol as the cycle infrastructure is spotty and confusing to the first time user.
But the ride was generally pleasant, and Stroud made a good overnight stop, with the convenince of pub lodging….drinks, dinner, sleep, breakfast…check. We then rode back to the Gloucester Canal via the Stroud water, where we house sat for a nice young couple for the weekend, with primary duties looking after their two bunnies. The bunnies were super cute and lots of fun. Who knew rabbits had such personalities!? And Gloucester has an interesting revitalized docklands area and a spectacular cathedral.
So one of the surprises of our first cycle touring days in the UK was the fact that it wasn’t that bad! After spending the better part of last winter in the UK, we had not deemed the roads, drivers, or train system too hospitable to bikes and basically decided that we’d use our precious cycling time elsewhere where the cycling seems safer and offered more freedom to discover. However, a critical law enacted in February mandates passing clearances of 1.5-2m for cars, as well as improved cyclist and pedestrian rights at intersections and crossings. Way to go UK!
There is a also nascent national cycling network (with gaps), as well as local tourism loops and other marked routes in many cities and towns. But it’s hard to find online cycling maps and data, despite downloading and paying for the Ordiance Survey (OS Maps) App at the premium level. We had to piece together routing from Komoot, Google, and some of the National and local signage to find a good route. It should be easier.
And many of the A or B roads are still absolutely no go in my view. For example we crossed a few primary roads (A roads) that Google had routed us on, and spent a km or two on some, but quickly bailed or found an alternate route as they were just too high speed with no shoulders. Some have bike lanes that disappear or are just way too narrow for traffic speeds.
As we alway say, England is a pretty crowded place and car use has run rampant since the 1970s, without the concurrent development of connective cycling infrastructure. It’s a similar pattern to the USA; the cities have led the way, while the suburban and rural areas have been neglected or fallen through the planning/funding cracks. In the UK, the physical challenges of the narrow roads are also harder to overcome, whereas in the US it is often more a lack of political will.
On the quieter backroads though, the cycling can be very rewarding as the small scale and undulations of the historic road system is perfect for cycle touring. And millions of British cycle frequently and we saw many out there….but they are mostly in high vis vests and it feels like a bit of a road warrior mentality that is not going to get the other 98% of the population out on bikes.
The other huge positive was that almost all the drivers are respecting the new laws, so this did make it feel safer and more pleasant on many roads. However, heading up a steep narrow road with 5 cars stuck behind you waiting to pass safely is still not exactly the relaxing experience of a 5m wide Dutch cycleway. So we decided that we will try out a bit more of the National cycling network next time through the UK in September.
So we headed out of Gloucester by train to Carmarthen, Wales, where our kind friends picked us up in their van for the final leg to Tenby. It was great (as always) to see our friends and we still are so thankful for their kindness in providing us some grounding for our European travels. Cheryl has known them for almost 40 years, and we feel especially close as generations age and kids turn into young adults. But somehow, we stay the same age, right?
The swimming in Tenby was particularly pleasant in August and we enjoyed recuperating a bit before moving onto our next adventure; cycling and exploring Ireland, so we packed up our bikes and gear and our kind hosts shuttled us again to the Stena Line ferry in Fishguard, Wales for the 4 hour trip to Ireland. I’ve heard the Irish are pretty friendly too, but more on that next time.