Saturday, June 30, 2007

Bernard Castle, England

Friends: Not much remains of the 74-mile long Hadrian's Wall, only fragments and stubs, so there was no hope it would be a weather barrier, holding back Scotland's rain and cold, providing at least a hint of summer to its south. Here it is, nearly July, and the only indication that these might be the warmer months are the long, long days, with the sky never darkening to pitch dark.

I did shed my tights my first day back in England, but only because they were still sopping wet and frigid cold in the morning. I've set up camp in the rain previously on this trip, but last night was the first night that the rain didn't relent for my last couple of hours on the bike, leaving my feet and legs thoroughly soaked. All it takes is a ten-minute reprieve from the rain, which I am ordinarily granted, for my shorts and tights to dry a bit from my body heat and the breeze. I kept waiting for that reprieve, intending to keep riding until that rain-free window, but it never arrived.

I finally called it a day near nine p.m., as I began a climb up into the white-out of the low-lying clouds, at about the same time a rare patch of unfenced forest turned up in this terrain of rolling moors that is predominantly wide-open and fenced in for sheep. The next morning began with a prolonged climb, so despite the 50-degree temps I quickly warmed up and didn't miss the tights. Not only didn't Hadrian's Wall bring about a climate change, it did not put an end to the long, steep, punishing climbs of Scotland. There were some right alongside Hadrian's Wall, which runs east to west from one side of England to the other, a bit south of the Scottish border.

The Wall dates to 123 AD, built by the order of Roman Emperor Hadrian to keep out the "barbarians" from the North, who would swoop into England looking for things other than under-the-table work. The Wall was an impressive structure of large, uniform-sized stones chiseled into bricks, piled eight feet wide and stacked as high as fifteen feet. At every mile there was a small fort and 16 regularly spaced major forts, garrisoned by approximately 500 soldiers each. Ruins remain of some of these as well. They are part of a National Park. An 84-mile hiking trail follows the remnants of the wall, winding to include some of the forts, which weren't always along side the Wall.

I biked about 16 miles of the road that hugs the southern side of the Wall. Its few remnants greatly dwarf the stone walls that the farmers have constructed to mark their fields. Now that I'm back in England I may have seen the last of the midges, the clouds of smaller-than-gnat-sized bugs that swarmed about me at a couple of my campsites as I hurriedly erected my tent and later took it down while waving and slapping. They are so tiny that when I'd smash the few that would get into my tent, clapping my hands together, they didn't even leave a mark, but they do bite and are pesky. For some they are their strongest memory of Scotland. A popular postcard is one of someone flailing away at a herd of the critters surrounding his head.

England is by contrast the land of rabbits. There have been stretches of miles where I couldn't look down the road without seeing a carcass, some fresh and others of varying pancake thickness depending on how many times they'd been run over. It wasn't unusual to see young 'uns along the road peering at their mangled mother. They are wise enough not to dart out haphazardly into the road, unlike the sheep. There are areas without fences along the road,just occasionally perpendicular to it with a cattle guard providing the final barrier for someone's property, allowing the sheep to roam freely across the road. The sheep mindlessly disregard motorized traffic, but me on my bike spook them into thinking I am there to round them up to be shorn or injected, so they go darting off into any direction, sometimes in front of me across the road.

A fawn ran ahead of me for a couple of miles at 14 mph fearful of cutting across the road and unable to disappear into the brush, contained by an eight foot-high deer-proof fence. I didn't speed up past it fearful it might dart in front of me at any moment. It finally halted in its tracks and doubled back past me. Such incidents will begin to wane as I descend into industrial and densely-populated England. The Tour de France prologue is a week from today. The night before will be the grand opening ceremony introducing each member of the 21 nine-man teams. I'm 350 miles from London. I hope to arrive by Thursday to have a day to rest and orient myself before the three-week 2,000-mile race begins. My hermocrit level and VO2 Max and Lactic Acid tolerance are all where they need to be. I am ready.

Later, George

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