A chance encounter in Central France provided the catalyst for our first night’s accommodation in England: On the pavement of Chantillon en Bray we crossed paths with a friendly couple from Brighton, one thing led to another and the next thing we knew we had a bed at their home! Better still, Neil met us with a welcoming smile off the ferry, taking us on our own guided tour along the white cliffs. What a start!
Next day, the narrow hedged lanes, vintage villages and courteous drivers of West Sussex lifted our spirits for what we believed would be idyllic cycling through rolling countryside. By the time we crossed into Surrey we were humming our 300th recital of ‘…in an English country garden’.
That was until a porsche screamed past. Closely followed by a long line of ferraris, mercedes and other performance cars the last of which elegantly flicked us the bird through their sunroof while narrowly overtaking at speed.
Constant aggressive driving made us rejig our route north, opting for a wide berth around London. Rolling through the counties of Hertfordshire and Berkshire we followed quiet roads that passed manor farms, long driveways and CCTV cameras above gates; in small towns mothers sheppherded curious children away from our bikes -eye contact became nonexistent.
One evening (after trying unsuccessfully to find anywhere else that wasn’t fenced off) we sat and cooked our meal on a grassy entrance to a golf club. Folk came and went without so much as a look our way and, nihilistic as it may have been, I began waving and looking like a cross eyed fiend with a lunatic smile – Brexit or not, the upper echelon of Britain’s high flyers couldn’t block the Monks from getting back in.
Yes, the south was hectic. Yes, it was the most intense cycling of the trip so far but among the adversity were greatly appreciated pockets of relief: like, relaxing with family in Aldershot and the added treat of watching cricket whilst nursing a beer at the boundary pavilion. Thanks too, must go to Barbara and family who kindly invited us to stay after Barbara had watched us go up and down the road trying to find a way out of town!
By night we lay awake plotting a passage north and by day we cycled hard trying to break free of the sprawling metropolis. Long ago seemed the frequent conversations and leisurely freewheeling of France.
Just when we were weighing up the logistics of training it north we reached Cambridgeshire. Almost instantly cars began to slow and people began talking to us again: “where are you lot off to, then? ” was a frequent conversation starter.
“Scotland.” we’d reply, and they’d look at us and shake their heads with a smile. Often followed by “so where did you come from?” which, when we told them created such a look of disbelief, that you’d be forgiven for thinking someone with a crazy smile had just cooked a meal on their golf club’s grassy entrance.
At Ely, we sat outside its impressive cathedral and watched morris dancers in the afternoon sun. People appeared unhurried -the London commuter belt seemed far away.
Heading up through The Fen we stopped to ask a farmer if we could camp on a nearby common. Before long we were sitting at his table sipping a cup of tea and absorbing information about the history of England’s low lands and the ambitious -yet successful- story of how the area we now camped on was reclaimed from the sea during the 17th century. This was local people taking time to tell local stories.
Heading out to our tent that evening we looked around at the flat, fertile landscape of East Anglia. Colourful hanging flower baskets lit up in the setting sun. The countryside road seemed sleepy and quiet. Birds made their way up to the poplar trees to roost, and our 301st recital of “…in an English country garden” began..