Monday, June 30, 2014

Penny Lane and Its Roundabout

Even if Penny Lane hadn't been right on my way, sandwiched between two Carnegie Libraries less than ten miles apart in south Liverpool neighborhoods, I would have most certainly made it one of the prime destinations of these travels.  I do not search out Beatles arcana, otherwise I could have spent a couple days in Liverpool, the home town of John, Paul and George, but I am a full-fledged devotee of roundabouts.

The Penny Lane roundabout could well be the most famous and most photographed roundabout in the world, other than that of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, thanks to "Penny Lane." It includes the lyric "Behind the shelter in the middle of  a roundabout," making it perhaps the only song, or at least top-of-the-charts hit, to mention a roundabout. This Paul McCartney written song was the 13th Beatles' single to go to number one in America, though not in Britain, falling one slot short.  Fans from around the world come to photograph its roundabout along with countless other Beatles' sites in Liverpool, including its airport, named for Lennon, as unlikely an airport name as the Federico Fellini Airport in his home town in Italy.  The shelter was at one time a shelter for a bus stop.  There is still a bus stop at the roundabout, but the shelter is now closed after serving as a restaurant for a while with the name of "Sgt Peppers Bistro."

Lennon's childhood home is just a few blocks from the roundabout.  It was a frequent meeting point for the young Beatles.  It is in a somewhat quiet residential neighborhood of row houses and small businesses with a church right across from it.  The barbershop the three local Beatles patronized and is mentioned in the first line of the song is nearby, as is a photography shop Paul liked to hang out at and several banks.  If I cared to be ushered to them I could have signed up for any number of tours.  A two-hour walking tour was advertised on a small poster plastered to the boarded-up shelter.

On-line one can find tours of four, five and eight hours going for upwards of $150.  Though no one else came along with a camera while I soaked in all the ambiance at this vortex, I could feel to my core the lingering emotions of the many, many Beatles fans who had preceded me.  It was a powerful experience that stuck with me all day, undercutting the charge I usually get at the four Carnegies that filled the rest of my day.  There was a string of them to the east of Liverpool towards Manchester and Leeds.  

That wasn't the only significant roundabout of the day.  As I entered Wigan in search of its Carnegie I came upon a rare English roundabout decorated with a sculpture, just as I frequently encounter in France. 

The vast majority of those in England are empty and not even landscaped, almost an eyesore knowing what potential these palates offer and how they are going to waste.

It was exciting to see a huge sculpture in a roundabout, perhaps an indication that the English were becoming cognizant of what a great opportunity roundabouts offered to brighten their environment and provide a venue for artists to display their work and touch the souls of the car-entombed and make them less menacing drivers.  My hopes were deflated though when I noticed a sign in the roundabout saying it was available for companies to advertise itself, as this sculpture was doing.  It was a version of selling the naming rights to stadiums, as has become so commonplace in the US.  Roundabouts as billboards, rather than roundabouts as canvases for art.  The mercantile interests prevail.  What a horror it would be to see statues of Ronald McDonald under Golden Arches in the middle of roundabouts. 

The French should be mounting a boycott of England and all things English until a law is passed to outlaw the desecration of the roundabout with commercial interests.  And while they're at it another law ought to be passed mandating a certain percentage of highway funds shoukd go to roundabout art, just as a certain percentage presently goes to bicycle related projects.  And I had been having such a wonderful day biking down the few blocks of Penny Lane, and hopping from Carnegie to Carnegie.

The first came in Runcorn at eight a.m. before I crossed the River Mersey over to Liverpool. It was only the second of the twenty-six I've seen so far on this trip that was closed and empty.  It was in the middle of the block on a wide side street.  Though it shared walls with its neighboring buildings in the Old World style, as several of these Carnegies have, it was easily the most prominent building around, if not in the whole town.

It didn't go in for any fancy lingo, acknowledging Carnegie with a simple "The Gift of Andrew Carnegie 1906" inscribed over the door just above "Free Library and Reading Room," a designation rarely seen.

The Carnegie in Garston was more of a house with Tudor style architecture.  A plaque just inside the door acknowledged Carnegie's "munificence."  

The librarians were much less generous than Carnegie.  When I asked where I might plug in my iPad, the librarian at the front counter reacted with horror, saying, "Oh no, you can't do that.  It might cause a power outage," the most ridiculous thing I'd ever heard. Next I tried the reference librarian.  She too was adamant about not doing such a thing.  These people weren't being very nice and even less so when I asked about using their computer.  "Do you have a local address?" one asked.

"No, I'm from America."

"I know that,"  she said, bursting in to laughter, as did the person beside her.

I was really quite desperate to charge my iPad, as it was down to two per cent after not being able to do any charging the day before, a Sunday, and running it down having to check for directions all too many times as I approached Liverpool. I asked another librarian shelving books about electricity.  She said to go upstairs.  And I did and I accomplished what I needed to do.  Hopefully Janina will be so fortunate if she persists in trying to get a refund for a Eurostar ticket an agent in London refused her when she tries in Paris.

The Carnegie in Sefton Park, just before Liverpool, was another Tudor style house.  And it too advertised itself in a unique way as a "Lending Library."  I biked right past it, as it was camouflaged by trees and had no warning sign of there being a library ahead.  I was told it was across from a Tesco, but it was a small neighborhood version of the large supermarket chain and I was too focused on the thickening urban traffic and missed that too.   There was no charging at this library as it was closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, having the least opening hours of any library I've come upon here.

That was it for the Livepool Carnegies.  The next was twenty miles further in Newton-le-Willons.   It was topped by an ornate weathervane, a common feature of these English Carnegies.  I can't say much about their interiors.  They have been community hall antiseptic with basic metal bookshelves and humdrum tables and chairs.  The American Carnegies are usually enhanced with fine wooden craftsmanship--floors, shelves, desks and often a grand circulation desk.  They offer the comfort of a men's club den.

The Wigan Carnegie was a four-story edifice so significant to the city that it named the street after the library.  It was constructed of red stone similar to the city hall just across the street.  I had to ask where the library was even as I stood in front of it, as it wasn't identified on its exterior facing Library Street, just on the side street where its entrance is now located.

The Westhoughten Carnegie was easy to identify with "Carnegie Library" chiseled over its entry with a flourish just below a shell.   Also above the entry was posted a sign that the library had a liquor license, as it holds functions in its theater where alcohol is served.

I'd had a bonus Carnegie two days before in Wales before this flurry.  It came in Bangor at the end of the day after I'd taken the ferry over from Dublin after visiting three of its Carnegies.  It was clearly Welsh with "Library" written in English as well as Welsh (Llyfrgell) on the front facade of this stately symmetrical building with a small dome over its entry.  I continued to just outside of town, camping behind a cricket pitch in a clump of trees.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

An Irish Retreat

While the Tour de France riders have been putting the final touches on their form before The Race, now less than a week away, at altitude training camps or scouting out crucial Tour stages, I made a retreat to the southwest corner of Ireland with Janina to taper my miles while hanging out with our English friends the Dodds at their seaside cottage out on the Beara Peninsula in the county of Kerry just north of Cork.

I've gotten in some good climbing miles on quiet roads, able to ride extra hard on my bike stripped of all its gear as if I were a Tour rider. This is a semi-mountainous region of Ireland with ten of the country's thirteen mountains over 3,000 feet in the county of Kerry, including the highest, Carrauntoohi at 3,405 feet.  One superb fifty-mile circuit took me from sea level on one side of the peninsula to the other and then back again over two passes of one thousand feet--Healy and Caha.  Both passes had spectacular views of rugged scenery.  If I were truly a Tour rider I could ride this circuit two or three times a day and be able to compare my times from year to year to gauge my fitness.

Caha is topped by a tunnel and goes by a carved Druid looking out upon a cairn on a ridge that is tipped by the rising sun on June 21, one of many sun-oriented rock formations in the region.

Healy was built in 1847 to bring relief to victims of the potato famine.  It is one hundred feet lower than Caha, but steeper and more challenging.

Although I got in some good hard miles and ate exceptionally well, my coach would not be pleased with all the hiking I did with Janina and Geraldine and Mike, going off on a daily hike that included a picnic lunch. The hikes were invariably prolonged by lengthy conversations with the ultra-friendly folk we met along the way, including some fascinating old-timers with accents we could barely decipher.  The locals are so welcoming they leave the doors to their homes wide open when the weather is nice. The Dodds said when some friends come by their home they just walk in without even knocking, the Irish way.  

One of our hikes took us to an ancient circle of rocks on a sheep farmer's property.

Our sojourn overlapped with the weekly Wednesday music night at a small pub two miles from the Dodds out in the country.  We had a wonderful meal of chowder and just caught fish and chips before the musicians began assembling at nine pm.  This, like every dinner at the Dodds, ended with pudding, except it wasn't pudding as Americans know it, as pudding is the English/Irish term for dessert.  Here it was a lemon pie with cream, another dazzler of the taste buds, putting us in a fine mood for the music.

This wasn't a performance for tourists, but rather a gathering of anyone who wished to play their instrument, just as table tennis players or card players have a weekly get-together. There is a nucleus of three or four woman called "Noreen and Friends" who are joined by anyone with an instrument or a set of vocal chords.  By the time we left at midnight there were fifteen playing, still going strong on their flutes and fiddles and accordions and harps and keyboards and guitars and drums.  If there had been a tug-of-war between musicians and the audience during an intermission, the audience would have been outnumbered. No one seemed to be in charge.  After a song a different musician seemed to be given the opportunity to start up the next number with everyone else joining in.  The room resounded with their lovely tunes and good natures.  

 A young American woman, who was spending the summer interning at a nearby organic farm, sang a couple of songs a Capella. Afterwards Janina commented how brave she was to step up and sing.  Geraldine wasn't surprised at all.  "She is an American," she said, "So she would be bold, wouldn't she."  The "wouldn't she" wasn't said with a question mark, but an affirmation, one of a number of charming English expressions she would attach to something she might say to add a little emphasis such as the French do with "voila" and "d'accord."

It was that American boldness in Janina that cemented their friendship on the Queen Mary a few years ago.  They were dinner mates, but it wasn't until they were sitting together on the deck one day when a couple of eccentric older guys in matching brightly colored outfits walked by that they had been seeing and wondering about that they truly recognized Janina as someone they would want to get to know better.  Janina blurted out, "What is it with you guys?"  The Dodds were astonished at her brashness.  "We never would have done such a thing," Geraldine said.  But they were impressed that Janina had.  The two guys were artists from Philadelphia who are known as Art in Tandem and have a website promoting themselves.  They were pleased to get to know these fascinating characters thanks to Janina.

When we tore ourselves away from the fabulous music at midnight it was drizzling.  I had come by bike and had my raincoat, as I did whenever I went out, though I didn't often have to use it.  The bar owner offered me a reflective vest for the ride home, one of the many acts of great neighborliness that personified the Irish.  The Dodds enjoy their time so much in Ireland, they would love to sell their house in England and stay there full-time.  All that prevents them is their wish not to be so far from their two children, although their daughter is about to go off to Australia for a couple of years to work for an advertising firm. The Dodds are thrilled for her.  They just hope she doesn't return with an Australian husband.  About the only thing worse would be marrying into royalty.  They greatly admire the Queen, but wouldn't want their daughter to have to endure constantly being in the public eye as a royal.

Geraldine spoke of teaching their son how to add one plus one at the table we were sitting at and now he tries to explain to her the math he is working with for his PhD in aeronautical engineering.  She and Mike worked as scientists in the pharmaceutical industry and review the papers he is working on.  He just has a couple months to wrap up his dissertation before he starts working for Rolls Royce in October.  I didn't need to feel guilty that I was fraternizing with the parents of someone who was about to give up his soul to the automobile industry, as Rolls Royce no longer manufactures cars, just jet engines.

The nearest town of Kenmare, ten miles from the Dodds, is home to one of the 66 libraries in Ireland funded by Carnegie, of which 62 still stand.  It opened in 1915.  It was taken over and occupied by the British Army for seven months in 1921 and was burnt out during the Civil War in 1922, but reconstructed largely as it had been.

The next nearest was in Killorglin, fifty miles from the Dodds.  It would have made a fabulous day ride out and back, over and through the Killarney National Park, but I couldn't separate myself from our merry times that long no matter how good it would have been for my Tour preparation.  

My Irish Carnegie tally had to end with three of the four Carnegies in and around Dublin that I was able to search out during our three-hour layover waiting for the ferry to Wales after taking the three-hour train from the Dodds to Dublin.  The central library was two-and-a-half miles from the train station.  I strapped on Janina's fifty-pound backpack and she pushed my bike.  We both wished we knew "Ulysses" better, as we knew Joyce would have commented on our surroundings.  We saw one plaque on the sidewalk with reference to his book with embedded footsteps leading to more, but not in the direction we were headed.

The library was a little further from the central district than we had hoped, so Janina had to resort to a taxi rather than a bus for the final five miles to the ferry while I had an hour to track down two neighborhood Carnegies.  It was a bit frantic but I managed it with five minutes to spare.

The Pembroke library had just closed at one for a lunch break when I pulled up in front of it, so I couldn't ask about it or get good directions to the next one in Rathmines, instead relying on my trusty GPS device.

When I asked directions from one guy he would barely let me go asking one question after another beginning with the usual, "Where are you from?"  I hated to be an American in a rush, but I had no choice.  The Rathmines library was covered in scaffolding.  It had celebrated its one hundredth anniversary the year before.  Above the entry was a plaque acknowledging Carnegie's "munificence," another of those ten-dollar words the English use whenever they can.  The Hanwell Carnegie outside London used the word "benificence" to describe Carnegie's generosity.

Janina and I boarded the ferry separately, me wheeling my bike down below with the cars and she walking on with the foot passengers, and met up at the information desk aboard the ferry for our final two hours together.  She would take the train back to London while I would bike to Leeds, one hundred and fifty miles away for the start of The Tour.  We sat with a couple from Yorkshire who had just spent a week on a sailboat traveling the Shannon River.  The Tour would be passing less than half a mile from their home on Stage One.  They said there had been intense excitement for months throughout the region.  The Tour coming to Yorkshire was the best thing that had happened to it in years, they gushed.  

They were disappointed England had been knocked out of the World Cup, but at least it meant everyone could focus all their attention on The Tour.  I offered them an English flag, even one with the antennae still in tact for their drive home, but they declined.  The only person I met in Ireland who would accept one was an English friend of the Dodds who wore a full-size English flag draped over his shoulders whenever England played along with wearing a pair of English flag socks.  He was a hardy, adventuristic soul, going for long hikes and climbing mountains all over the world.  One of his most noteworthy was climbing Mount Whitney in California and continuing on the John Muir Trail to Yosemite.  He would love to do the Appalachia Trail, but next up is a jaunt through the Pyrenees.  

Monday, June 23, 2014


Londoners have a genuine economic incentive to take advantage of the city's bike rental system.  A day's use of a bike is cheaper than a single ride on the bus or the tube--two pounds compared to two pounds forty pence with the pound at $1.70 to the dollar, the highest it's been in a long time.  It may be the best bargain in this otherwise rather expensive city.  Its a much better deal than Chicago, where it is seven dollars for the day, three times the cost of a bus or train trip.

Janina took advantage of the bikes, joining me on my own, two of our three days exploring the city.  We declined our first day until we found a map that showed the location of all 720 stations dispensing the system's ten thousand bikes, so we'd have a precise idea where we could return a bike before the thirty-minute window of use expired and the extra fees started accumulating.  Even knowing where all the stations are located, one can still get frantic as that thirty-minute mark approaches.  Besides the cost and the map, Janina preferred London's rentals to Chicago's as its bikes were somewhat lighter and easier to ride than the tanks of Chicago, which take all of her strength to propel.  The only drawback to London was a five-minute waiting period between returning a bike to a station and then being able to acquire another.

The system will be celebrating four years of operation next month.  It is looking for a new corporate sponsor, as the founding sponsor, Barclay's, will pull out at the end of the year.  The rental bikes are affectionately known as "Boris Bikes," after London's two-term, flamboyant, shaggy-haired mayor Boris Johnson, who instituted the program and is an ardent cyclist.  He once came to the rescue of a woman being mugged as he passed her on his bike.  He is so committed to maintaining the program that in his efforts to convince Barclay's to renew their sponsorship of one hundred million pounds, he offered to change his name to Barclay.

Our first outing on a Boris took us from the hostel we stayed at our first night in Holland Park to the Thames and over to the Tate Museum.  Our map showed several categories of bike friendly routes--bike paths through the city's many parks, streets with bike lanes, streets with minimal traffic and a few stretches of "cycle superhighways," bright blue-marked lanes on the roadway exclusively for bikes.  We were able to fly along on one such superhighway on our final stretch to the Tate.  

We were partially drawn to the Tate, which is exclusively devoted to British artists, to see its several rooms of Turners, as I had just seen the world premier at Cannes of an excellent film about the artist by Mike Leigh that will receive a great amount of attention when it is released in the fall. Timothy Spall justifiably won the best actor award at Cannes for his performance.  Janina greatly respects his work, breaking free of the strictures of realistic landscape painting.

Though the British can be sticklers for decorum, we did not have to check our backpacks, as is the case in many museums.  Nor was there an entry fee, just a box to drop in a suggested four pound donation.  We feared the museum would be mobbed on a Saturday, especially when the nearby Boris rack was near capacity, Janina luckily grabbing the last vacant receptacle.  Most racks were close to empty with the warm sunny weather making it an ideal day to be on the bike.  But the museum wasn't packed at all, making it easy for us to meet up with Janina's friend Ewen who she had met on a previous visit to London.

He's a retired banker who now devotes his life to helping refugees, even housing them while their cases pend. He had some space at present in his four-story apartment not far from the British Library, the reason he chose to live where he does, and invited us to stay with him our final two nights in the city.  He earned a PhD in Arabic from Princeton and taught at the University of Minnesota before going into banking, tired of the politics of academia.  He grew up in London and intimately knows the city and took us walking for hours and hours and miles and miles to all sorts of fascinating nooks and crannies.

From the Tate we walked along the Thames.  We passed behind the headquarters of MI5 with its barred windows.

And we waded through hoards of tourists thronging the main postcard sites--Westminster Cathedral and Parliament and many of the others.  Janina offered to take a photograph of a young Turkish woman struggling with her self-timer.  She had come to London to hone her English.  Ewen told her there was a great demand for translators in London, as there are 360 languages taught at its many schools.  He had gotten his start in Arabic at the nearby Westminster School, where the elite of the country are educated before they go on to Oxford and Cambridge,  Although Ewen lived in London, it was required that he board at the school, though he went home on weekends.

We passed the house where Ben Franklin lived not too far from Trafalgar Square and continued on to art museum number two for the day--the Courtauld Gallery at Somerset House to see Manet's "A Bar at the Folies-Bergere," from 1882, a year before his death.  Janina considers it one of the twenty-five most important paintings and is one of her favorites.   I wondered if she could possibly be rendered speechless by seeing it in person, but no, all her professorial and critical expertise gushed with extra passion as she commented on this depiction of a sad-eyed young woman wearing a low-cut nice dress standing behind a bar selling concessions at a theatrical event attended by the well-to-do.  She is clearly not happy with her lot.  

There was a charge at this museum.  We could bring in our backpacks but we couldn't wear them on our backs.  We either had to carry them or hang them over our stomachs or check them.  We also encountered a school-master of a security guard who wished to be a stickler.  He reprimanded Janina for speaking too loudly as she enthusiastically described another painting even though no one else was present.  In another room as the three of us prolonged our stay discussing the art, he swooped in and ordered Ewen to remove his elbow from a glass display cabinet, followed by a muttered, "Now we're going to have to clean it."  It was a miracle no one pounced on Janina for waving her finger too close to a painting as she pointed out this and that, as often happens.  It has been amusing to experience an occasional example of the prim and proper nature of the English, though it is far outweighed by their exceedingly great friendliness and helpfulness, and hardly causes any stress.

The next day the three of us were joined by my friend David and his girl friend Veronica for a bike ride starting in Ewen's neighborhood.  David too had grown up in London and then gone to America.  Ewen had spent seven years on the other side of the Atlantic, while David lived in Chicago for thirty-four years before returning to London a little over a year ago. David is a fellow cycling enthusiast.  We took a ride around Regent's Park and then climbed Primrose Hill for a wonderful view of the city with both Ewen and David pointing out the significant landmarks and having a wonderful story for each--the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral, the Olympic Park from 2012, the Shard and on and on.  Ewen said we weren't far from where Sylvia Plath killed herself, though we couldn't see it.

Ewen and David are certainly two of the most knowledgeable and passionate people in all of London and also two of the friendliest and most out-going, as if it were their mission to brighten and enliven the city, greeting and drawing perfect strangers into conversation.  David had  a cheery hello for everyone we passed.  Ewen specialized in speaking Arabic to those he recognized as speaking the language.  But they also had a bit of the disciplinary school-master in them as well.  David took to task a young father on a bike whose two young children were wearing ill-fitting helmets that would be no use to them in an accident.  Ewen informed an Arabic-speaking woman that she shouldn't be feeding the swans bread as it wasn't part of their natural diet and could become stuck in their throats. 

When we paused for lunch, the meal might have gone on all day if David and Veronica didn't have to attend a wedding.  David said it was mandatory for all tourists to London, though he wouldn't insult us with such a term, to have their photo taken at Abbey Road.  A handful of photographers await them for their own album-cover of a photo.  Since it wasn't nearby, another street would have to do.  It was enough of a tourist area that the street had a warning painted on it for pedestrians unaccustomed to traffic driving on the left-hand side of the road.  Not only was there a Starbucks in the background, across the street was a Pret a Manger restaurant, an English chain of French ready to eat food owned by McDonald's that they are introducing to the US.

In our wanderings back to Ewen's we dropped in on the mother of all libraries, the British Library.  Its new building doesn't diminish its grandeur nor its magnitude in the least.  Its centerpiece is the glassed-in 65,000 volume library of King George III from over two hundred years ago.  It fills a huge space six stories high.  The enclosure of thousands of gilt and leather-bound volumes is absolutely stunning.  Even more so in a nearby dimly-lit  room is the Magna Carta from 1215.  In a larger adjoining room are many other historic books and documents ranging from Bibles to Paul McCartney's hand-written lyrics to "Yesterday."  The library and its contents put an exclamation point on all the history and culture we had been absorbing in our three days in London.  We had seen more than we could have imagined thanks to Ewen, but we also knew we had barely scratched the surface.  We could have spent days more immersing ourselves in London and all it had to offer, but we had friends awaiting us in Ireland and had already booked a train.

It was so enriching I forgot to make time to seek out a handful of Carnegies in the outlying neighborhoods of London.  I had only seen the one in Hanwell on my ride into the city.  It was off on a side street in a residential neighborhood. When a frenzied woman in a hurry directed me down the street to the library I thought she was just trying to get rid me of me.  But there it was in all its shining splendor.

It was accompanied by a plaque just inside the door,

and another on the outside of the building in typical Englishese.

Ireland has a few Carnegies as well.  Here I come.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Maidenhead, England

When I saw a picnic table under some trees besides an athletic facility at lunch time yesterday I seized upon it before anyone else could beat me to it.  It was the first I had seen in a week of bicycling in England.  Quite a contrast to France, where they are a common sight along the roads and in towns.  The French aesthetic places a high emphasis on making life a little more bearable with a multitude of such amenities.  Benches too are regularly sprinkled about for anyone to plop down upon for a rest or a ponder or a view.  And there are all the beautified round-abouts that put a shine on the landscape.  The English have adopted the round-about as vigorously as the French, but they don't bother to enhance them with art or landscaping.

Though the English may be blah and uninspired in some respects, they do offer some benefits that the French don't that makes the cycle touring a little easier.  Their grocery stores don't close for lunch and they stay open much later, some for twenty-four hours.  And they are open on Sundays for more than a few morning hours.  Plus the English have a library system comparable to America's.  They are much more widespread and they are open all day most every day, while in France one can only count on finding an open library in larger cities, as those in smaller  towns are only open a few days a week and for limited hours.

As I was enjoying my English picnic table, about half-way through a meat pie, something I don't find often in France, a young man startled me with a reprimand.  "This is school property," he informed me. "I'm going to have to ask you to leave the premises as soon as possible."  He was polite but firm, the English way, such as the signs entering towns saying, "Please drive considerately," and then on the opposite side saying, "Thank you for driving considerately."  Or this sign in a park:

I have managed to cause a couple of women alarm when they caught me plugging my iPad into a socket not normally used for such purposes, not sure exactly what I was up to.  One was in a tourist office and another time was in the most sterling Carnegie yet in Kings Lynn.

Whether it was the magnificence of its construction or his availability or some other factor, this was a rare library that Carnegie was present at for its opening.

I didn't notice any photo of the event on the walls.  But that very day the local paper had a story on the library with such a photo. It showed a crowd of men in long jackets and top hats. The librarian who showed it to me said,  "We"re not sure which one of the men are Carnegie, though we think it is either this one or that," pointing at the two men with beards.  Kings Lynn has been an important port for centuries and was a sizable city when its Carnegie was constructed. It was large enough that no additions have been needed.

I wasn't sure if I had enough time to bike the seventy-five miles further north and west to Grantham for its Carnegie and still make it back to London in time to meet Janina, but Grantham had the added attraction of being the birth place of Margaret Thatcher.  The wind had been blowing from the north, so if that prevailed it would make it a battle, but then a fast ride the less than two hundred miles back to London, so I pushed on.  I arrived first thing the next morning.  When I asked for the library I was sent to the new sterile library on the second floor above a big shopping center.  At least I discovered a new grocery store, Morrisons, that had meat pies for thirty pence and peanut butter for sixty-nine pence, half of what I had seen anywhere else.

The Carnegie, now a museum, was across the street behind a statue of Isaac Newton, who went to school in Grantham in the 1600s, the same school Thatcher attended growing up.  Although this Carnegie didn't have any grand distinctive features or any noteworthy frills or embellishments as many do, it still emanated a dignity and stature as would any one hundred year old building that had been of great significance to thousands of people over the years. 

I asked at the nearby tourist office if there was a statue of Thatcher or a museum devoted to her.  I was told that a statue had been proposed, but it was a controversial issue and hadn't been decided on.  The only memorial to her was a plaque on the house she grew up in and that was her family's store just a few blocks away.

The plaque though was hardly visible.  It was on the second floor half way up the corner window facing  to the left.  The store is now owned by an acupuncturist.

Then it was twenty-five south to Stamford and its Greek temple of a Carnegie in its pedestrian mall.  It looked liked it could have been plucked from the Acropolis two thousand years ago.  Like many of these English Carnegies, it appeared to be much older than its American counterparts, even though they were all built at the same time in the early 1900s.

I just made it to the small town of Irchester before the sun ducked below the trees for my third Carnegie of the day.  It was reminiscent of the mostly small-town Carnegies in the US.  It stood out in the small town with its restrained, but striking, architecture.  It was a building that commanded attention without demanding it.  A bird perched atop its steeple didn't care to have its picture taken.

I camped a few miles out of town in some high weeds between a row of trees that shielded me from the road and a huge pasture of wheat that went on and on.

I was less than fifteen miles from my final Carnegie before London in the large city of Northhampton.  I had hoped to be there at nine when it opened, but the cycle path I took the last seven miles to avoid a superhighway wound all over and led me astray a few times, delaying me by nearly an hour.  Time was precious as I wanted to make a detour to Oxford on my way to London.  Now I wasn't sure if I could make it, but with the wind at my back I elected to give it a try.

Northhampton's library was another strikingly grand edifice in a pedestrian mall standing out from all the other buildings around it.

Among its distinguishing features were busts of Carnegie and George Washington inserted into its exterior along with those of Dryden and Fuller.

The mall was full of buskers, including a couple of Native Americans with the Carnegie a little ways down the mall on the right. 

I managed to go the wrong way for a couple of miles leaving town, forcing me to ride even harder to get to Oxford, forty-five miles away, before the final sixty-mile dash to London. But it was well worth the effort.  Oxford had even more grand and old buildings than Cambridge and just as much vitality and bicycles and bicyclists, and also more joggers in the late afternoon than I've seen elsewhere, many of them running at a hard pace, as if they were emulating Roger Bannister, who became the first to break  the four-minute barrier for the mile on an Oxford track in 1954, a feat that was thought to be impossible.

Though it had no Carnegie, it had one of the oldest and most pre-eminent libraries in the world--the Bodleian, which dates to 1602 and houses over eleven million volumes.

I hung out for an hour, hardly doing Oxford justice, before continuing on my way.   I wanted to do another thirty miles, getting me halfway to London, and within comfortable range of my noon meeting with Janina, who will be regaining her land legs after a week at sea on the Queen Mary.  She will be docking as I'm riding, and then taking the train in from Portsmouth eighty miles away.

The traffic was as bad as ever, but I expected it to thin as the England-Uruguay game at eight approached.  And then after eight I would have the roads all to myself.  But instead of thinning the traffic seemed to increase as game time approached. I passed through Henley on the Thames, home of the famous annual rowing regatta in July that it was already preparing for, right at eight.  Traffic was backed up coming into town as I entered and exited for half a mile.  When the game began, the traffic died a bit, but it didn't go completely dead as it had in Germany four years ago on those occasions when Germany was playing.  

I completed my final thirty miles and nearly one hundred for the day by 8:30 and forced myself to stop as I approached London's sprawl. I found a forest to disappear into just before Maidenhead and then ate and typed away as England  lost its second game of the tournament, a national disaster.  Not since 1958 has England failed to make it beyond the first round into the final sixteen, as is imminent. They are not mathematically eliminated, though no team in World Cup history has gone on after an initial two defeats.  They need a win and a heap of goals in their final match against Costa Rica, not so likely with their lack of scoring power so far.  But it did have the most difficult draw of the tournament with three of the world's top ten teams in its bracket of four, with England the third ranked of them behind Italy and Uruguay.   I only hope the motorists aren't extra irritated tomorrow as I cycle in to London.  But at least I'll have my much anticipated reunion with Janina to look forward to.  

And I'll be wondering how much longer until all the flags come down?

Monday, June 16, 2014

Cambridge, Ville Départ

The traffic has thinned a bit now that I'm headed north away from London, but not as dramatically as the flag index would indicate.  I only found two today along the road after sixteen yesterday and nine the day before, fallen off cars demonstrating their World Car fervor.  What I'm going to do with them I'm not sure.  I gave the seven I found my first two days to the Dodds.  I promised I would have another fifty for them when we meet up again in Ireland next week that they could make a quilt of or string them up across the front of their house.  They didn't think it would be so good to be displaying the flag of England over there.

Four years ago when I biked through Germany during the World Cup I had a similar bounty of flags.  I saved them until The Tour began and then distributed them to German fans along the road.  I could do the same this year when The Tour returns to France, bequeathing them to English fans.  There will certainly be plenty of them rooting for Froome and Cavendish and possibly Wiggins.  

I've given away several flags already to friendly folk who have given me directions.  They have been delighted, as if they had won a prize.  They are invariably pleased to begin with that I have a question for them and that they have an answer.  It seems to be a national pastime to demonstrate one's knowledge.  Rather than karaoke, bars have a weekly "Quiz Night."  

On occasion when I've asked a pedestrian for directions, another will pause to eavesdrop and then offer his two pence's worth of opinion.  Almost without fail I'll eventually be asked, "Are you Canadian or American?"  When I say I'm from Chicago they'll pipe in with "the Windy City" or "Illinois," hoping for a couple of bonus points.  People are happy to have a prolonged chat.  Get these Brits out from behind the wheel of their car and they are wonderful.  

Out on the road though, its hard not to regard them as demons, whizzing past me one after another, hardly a car's length between them, like a non-stop metronome.  They can't give me as much space as they might like because the equally relentless oncoming traffic doesn't allow them to swing over much. There is so much congestion there are regular signs warning of possible "queues" ahead, showing three cars bumper-to-bumper. 

An equally common sign warns of speed cameras, a necessity to tame the heavy-footed.   

I welcome every double-decker bus, each reducing the congestion by one bus. Now someone needs to invent a double-decker car. I could escape the roadway and doodle along on the occasional bike paths, but they are almost as treacherous as the road with their rough pavement and overhanging brush poking at me as I pass.  And they hug the road so closely the roar of the traffic is hardly diminished.

After eight Carnegies my first three days in the UK, I only added one more these past two days.  It was in Southend-on-Sea at the mouth of the Thames, fifty miles east of London.  It was a long way out for a single Carnegie, especially with all the London coming-and-going traffic, but it yielded a great harvest of flags and since these are training miles, I don't need them to be scenic nor a gateway to some ultimate destination.  But a Carnegie is always a worthwhile goal.  I am happy to lay my eyes on each and every one of them.  It is always a memorable moment when I first spot it, heightened by the miles and miles of anticipation.  This was another architectural gem, grand and statuesque.  It no longer served as a library, but continued a prominent existence as a museum/planetarium in the town center a couple blocks from its train station.

The next Carnegie was seventy-five miles away to the northwest in Royston, or so I thought.  When I reached the town center I asked a woman for directions.  She said it was just two blocks away on the left and described it as a "plain building," with a tone of irritation as if she were on the losing side of a battle to preserve the old Carnegie as the town's library.  She was holding two big bags of groceries and had been bustling along, so I didn't detain her to hear more.  

She was most correct calling the library "plain."  It was de rigour mall architecture that could have housed a hair dresser or optician or insurance salesman.  When I asked the librarian where the old Carnegie was she wasn't aware that the original library was a Carnegie.  While I sat recharging my iPad  I checked Wikipedia to see when the Carnegie had been replaced and learned that there had never been a Carnegie here in Royston.  It was actually Royton, a town north of Manchester, too small to be listed in the index of my map, so my eye didn't pick up the "s" when I scanned the index.

I didn't have to be too frustrated, as I had to pass through Royston on my way to Cambridge, twelve miles further, to scout out the start of stage three of The Tour and also to give the famed university town a look.  Tour banners adorned light poles all along the mile-and-a-half route the peloton will follow through the heart of city, past many of its centuries old buildings, before it commences racing.  The inner city was bustling with students on bikes.  Hundreds were parked in bunches, many just leaning up against buildings locked to themselves.  This city of 123,000 inhabitants, the 54th largest in England, oozed history and vitality.  I will be eager to return, not only for The Tour, but some time just to hang out in this city that celebrated the 800th anniversary of the founding of the first university there in 1209.

The peloton will set out from Parker's Piece, a huge park in the town center.  The tourist office had a walking map of the route past the many historic sights.  The sidewalk beside the starting point had been marked.

A policeman on a bike directed me to it.  I asked him if he would be on the course during the stage, hoping he could tell me when it would be closed down to cyclists.  When it last visited England I was evicted from the course three hours before the peloton was due to pass, an hour sooner than in France.  He said he knew it was going to be a hectic day and he had put in for time off months ago so he could be faraway in the country away from all the hubbub.  He had enough seniority that his superiors couldn't force him to work that day, he was happy to say.  

He wasn't much of a cycling fan.  He had no opinion on whether Wiggins should ride in The Tour, as the Sky director hasn't decided yet whether to include him on the team, fearing friction with last year's winner Froome.  No one I have asked, cyclist or not, has had an opinion on this issue, even though Wiggins was such a national hero when he became the first Englishman to win The Tour in 2012 that he was knighted and also given the honor of lighting the Olympic torch.  If I were to ask anyone though about any member of England's World Cup team, they'd launch into a heated diatribe, either why that player was the most important member of the team or why he ought to go, as I hear on the radio.

Cycling remains a very minor sport in England.  There was no mention of the just completed Dauphine-Liberé, the final tune-up for Froome before he begins his defense of his title, on the sports stations yesterday, even though Froome held its Yellow Jersey for the first five stages and was hoping to regain it and win the race on the final stage.  I was most interested in learning the result.  

The World Cup of course dominated the sports news, but coverage was also given to golf, tennis, rugby, cricket and Formula One, but not a word on cycling.  At least one of the newspapers at the library had a story on the race, though it mostly made excuses for Froome not winning it, actually dropping from second to twelfth on the last stage, than focusing on the dramatic win by the American, Andrew Talansky of Garmin.  

Its a monumental win for Talansky.  He suddenly becomes someone to take seriously.  His tenth place finish last year in his first Tour was somewhat of a surprise, vaulting from thirteenth with a strong finish on the final mountain stage, actually flying past Contador on the last climb.  He may not be a flamboyant rider, but no one has more grit or determination.  If it had been warmer today I would have worn my Garmin jersey that I have been saving until The Tour start.