Saturday, June 14, 2014

A Carnegie Welcome to the UK

Less than half an hour after rolling off the ferry in Portsmouth, following a nine-hour night-crossing of The Channel from Le Havre, I had that wonderfully familiar pleasure of gazing upon a Carnegie Library, one of over a hundred the American philanthropist funded in the British Isles.  Like its American cousins, it was a distinctly majestic building, but with an added old-world aura adding to its luster.  It was part stately mansion, part presidential palace, part grand embassy.

All three people I asked for directions, beginning with the customs official who stamped my passport, were delighted that I wanted to see their "Car-NAY-gee."  It was no secret that the library was a Carnegie, as Carnegie was chiseled into its front facade up high and also prominently painted on a sign beside its front door.  I can't report though if his portrait hung inside, as the library was closed this day, Thursday, as a shortage of funding had reduced its opening hours to five days a week, and not full ones, as it closed for an hour each day for lunch.

Carnegie libraries weren't what had drawn me to Great Britain, it was of course the start of The Tour de France in less than three weeks, but they were an added bonus.  I fully intend to search out as many of them as I can in my time here.  Three more awaited me in the next fifty miles along the coast as I headed east towards Canterbury, where I was to meet up with friends of Janina. If I had cared to spare a day, I could have taken a ferry from Portsmouth to the Isle of Wight for another.  That was mighty tempting, as its annual music festival was set to begin that weekend.  But I feared if I crossed over, I wouldn't be able to leave, upsetting other plans, so  both the musical festival and the Carnegie in Sandown will have to wait for another time.

I had to head slightly inland, as no road hugged the coast until a little later.  I alternately had a bike lane on the edge of the road or a path just off it for many of my miles.  Signs regularly posted for bike routes, including the one I was on, indicated a strong bicycle consciousness here. It wasn't reflected though much in the motorists.  They seemed to regard me as a pest that they'd love to swat, but just having to settle for slight intimidation as they whizzed by.  France had little of Britain's bicycling infrastructure, but it didn't need it, as the motorists there fully accept, if not welcome, bicyclists on their roadways.  Nor is there as much traffic on the other side of The Channel thanks to a population density considerably smaller than that of England.  

The cars were unrelenting.  I didn't really notice or mind at first, as I was too wrapped up enjoying all the fresh stimuli in this new environment, but after a couple of hours the din of the incessant cars finally registered with me, wondering if it would ever let up. I had hoped when I escaped  the large city of Portsmouth it would diminish, but looked as if it would be a fact of life for all this stretch along the south coast and perhaps south of London, eighty miles to the northeast from Portsmouth.

But I had Carnegies to look forward to, so I didn't dwell upon the not so pleasant, especially compared to France, cycling.  The next was in Littlehampton.  It could have been an aristocrat's cottage on his country estate, though the librarian said that people often ask if the building had originally been a church, even though "Free Library" is chiseled over its entry.  He wasn't a very churchly man, so he wouldn't appreciate the comparison.  The only thing he enjoyed about going to church was the music, so he donated money for church organs.

It was at this library that I learned that I would need another adapter to plug into the English sockets to recharge my iPad.  The one I had for France with two rounded prongs, in contrast to our flat prongs, didn't work in England.  Along with driving on the left, they distinguish themselves from the rest of Europe by having three-pronged sockets.  Fortunately I had to go no further than a nearby hardware store to buy one.  I felt lucky I had crossed The Channel on a French ferry rather than an English ferry, as I had fully drained my iPad before embarking.  

The next Carnegie in Worthing was now an art gallery and museum.  It had been replaced by a nondescript glassy library behind it.  Never does a newer library come close to comparing to its original.  No one would give it a second look or make any effort to come see it for its architecture. England is no different to America in that respect.  

My final Carnegie of day one in England came in Hove, a city that blends in with the large city of Brighton, mentioned in The Who's "Pinball Wizard" sung by Elton John in "Tommy."  It was in the middle of a block built wall-to-wall with its neighboring buildings, but still eminently outshone all around it with its many regal features.  Once again, this wasn't  merely a library, but rather A LIBRARY!  It called out to be entered and to be regarded with respect.

I had to go one hundred miles to the next Carnegie in Ramsgate, all the way to the easternmost end of the southern coast.  Along the way I rode with an English cyclist who was riding from one end of the coast, starting in Land's End to the west. Land's End is also the starting point for those who wish to ride from the bottom of the country to its top at John O'Groats in Scotland.

My periodic map gazing revealed I could shave a dozen miles or more from my route to Ramsgate by going inland via Canterbury rather than sticking to the coast.  I somewhat needed to shorten the distance, as it would make it easier to reach the Dodds, Janina's friends outside of Canterbury, that night.  They lived a dozen miles from Ramsgate.  I could stop by their house, strip my bike of its fifty pounds of gear, and make an unburdened dash to the Carnegie and back.  It would still make for a one hundred mile day, my first of these travels, but not quite as demanding, and it would ensure I wouldn't keep the Dodds waiting for dinner.  

I easily found their house on a quiet country lane about eight miles east of Canterbury thanks to a pair of small American flags they had mounted.  When I greeted Mike I asked if he feared his neighbors would think he was rooting for America in the World Cup, as many homes, as well as cars, were adorned with the flag of England to show their support.  He said that was a possibility or they also   might think he was showing support for a possible American intervention in Iraq with things becoming combustible there again.  But he did remove the flags after my arrival.  

Geraldine and Mike were Janina's dining mates on one of her Queen Mary voyages.  They became close friends.  Janina had visited them here at their house and they had visited her in Chicago, and we all intended to get together next week at their cottage in Ireland.  Janina said they were wonderful conversationalists with an uncommon command of the language, but more importantly, as kindly a couple as she'd ever met.  I could immediately recognize those qualities in our brief introduction before I made my ride to Ramsgate.  

Geraldine plotted out a nice route on small roads so I could avoid the main bustling highway, though she couldn't direct me to the library, as they'd never ventured to Ramsgate.  I had no worries of finding it, as everyone in a community invariably knows where their library is.  Surprisingly though I had yet to encounter a sign to a town's library here in the UK, unlike in the US where they are so common.  But that just allowed me to interact with others.  When I reached the outskirts of Ramsgate I asked an elderly couple out sunning on their porch the way.  Their immediate reaction was that it was "quite a ways further, over a mile a way," as if it would be a daunting distance on a bicycle.  

The library was a couple blocks off the main street on a hill in a residential neighborhood.  It was after six and closed.  Even the gate around it was locked so I couldn't peer in to see if its interior was as magnificent as its exterior.  

I took the more direct route back to the Dodds, enduring once again the nerve-wracking traffic, but was filled with delight for my full day and the strength remaining in my legs.  They had finally reached a level of conditioning where they could pedal all day without fatigue as long as I gave them an occasional rest and kept them fueled,  abiding my those axioms of eating before one is hungry and taking a beak before one is tired.

The Dodds house is surrounded by an apple orchard on three sides as well as a mini-botanical garden of their own where I set up my tent for the night right alongside a large oval train track for Mike's narrow gauge steam-powered train.

He laid the track just four years ago, well after his two children had grown up and before they had any grandchildren, at the instigation of a friend who has a similar track and thought Mike's backyard would be perfect for another.  Mike has long had a fascination for trains, so it didn't take much convincing for him to add it to his garden, though he somewhat surprised Geraldine with it.  He holds a yearly gathering for fellow enthusiasts, who all bring their trains and have a go at it.  We were up until nearly midnight over our prolonged dinner of salmon, just as Janina had predicted, talking about all and sundry, though not much about the World Cup, as Mike is one of the few in the country who wouldn't be watching the next evening's first match of England against Italy, though he couldn't help but be well-informed about the tournament since most of his friends deeply cared.

After a hearty breakfast of eggs and sausage and bacon and potatoes I was off for three more Carnegies before reaching London seventy miles away.   I couldn't dawdle as I needed to get beyond London and out into a rural area to camp.  And I couldn't circumvent London, as my route was blocked by the wide Thames with no bicycle-amenable bridges until I was well into the city.  There was a ferry, but if I took that I'd sacrifice two Carnegies closer to the city.

My first Carnegie for the day was in the heart of Gravesend where the streets had been pedestrianized.  It was another old world building crammed into a city center side by side with its neighboring buildings just as the one in Hove.  But its tight quarters in no way diminished its majesty.

Across the street dangled the red and white English flag of St. George, not the Union Jack of the empire, as Scotland and Wales can field their owns teams in the World Cup. Prime Minister David Cameron announced he would be flying the same flag at Ten Downing Street in support of the country's team as well.

This was the first library here with a portrait of Carnegie, though not the standard one issued by the Carnegie foundation in 1935 on the hundredth anniversary of Carnegie's birth. 

Dartford's Carnegie resided on the fringe of a large park and faced a statue of a soldier commemorating WWI.

A plaque on the building acknowledged Carnegie.

I was led on foot to the closed-down Carnegie in Erith by a grizzled older guy who loved the building very much and wanted to personally show it to me and lament its decayed state and also to vent a bit over the evils of capitalism. It may have been the grandest of the eight I'd seen so far with a most distinctive ship weather-vane.

After my guide finished his enthusiastic lecture on the many features of the building he liked, he lapsed into accusing Carnegie of donating money for all the libraries to appease his conscience for exploiting the working man. "Maybe," I said, "But it was mostly because he wanted to provide others the opportunities he had been given thanks to a benefactor who provided access to his private library to young factories workers as Carnegie was.  Plus Carnegie loved libraries and books.

"Did you realize," I asked, "that Carnegie rose from poverty?  His school days ended when he was eleven years old after his family immigrated to Pittsburgh from Scotland.  Carnegie immediately went to work full-time in a factory to help support his family earning $1.25 a week.  It was only through that small library that he was able to further his education, impressing upon him the importance and influence of reading and libraries, and inspiring him to make them accessible to all.  There were few free libraries at that time in the 1850s when Carnegie was in his teens, until 1900 when he began funding libraries, explaining why many of his libraries have "Free Library" chiseled on their facades." My friend wasn't willing to excuse Carnegie for amassing his wealth off the "working man's back," but he couldn't deny the good he had put his wealth to.

He told me there was a nearby bike path along the Thames that would take me to a ferry less than ten miles away or a tunnel a little further for pedestrians, though he advised me the tunnel wasn't so safe.  It wasn't a particularly scenic ride through a long industrial stretch with hardly any other cyclists on a not very well-maintained path, not all of it paved, but I couldn't help but marvel that here I was bicycling along the Thames after just a few days ago feeling a similar joy riding along the Seine.

When I arrived at the ferry depot a couple miles before Greenwich a sign said it was 23 minutes until the next departure, so I ventured half a mile further to the tunnel.  There was another cyclist just arriving at the elevator down to the tunnel.  He was on his way to work and said he took the tunnel every day and there was no reason to be concerned. A sign said no bicycling or busking, but he said he always rode on through, so off we went bicycling under the Thames, another lark.  And in less than ten miles I came upon a forest where I could pitch my tent.  England's soccer game began at eleven, too late for me, though I expected to be awoken a couple hours later by cars going by blasting their horns in celebration of an English victory.  It was not to be, as the Brits lost 2-1.


Dud said...

G'Day George,

For those who would like to explore starting from the Carnegie Libraries you have blogged, I suggest Google Maps.

For example by coordinates:°48'08.0"N+1°04'38.8"W

or by address:,+Fratton+Rd,+Portsmouth+PO1+5EZ,+United+Kingdom

Map, satellite, street view, photographs available.

Good luck with the traffic.

Bill Burns said...

Hey now, George!

Cheerio from Jolly Ol' Kansas! Saw this article about the Yorkshire/Leeds Etape in the FT and immediately thought you might enjoy reading when you're finally camped for the day.

george christensen said...

Thanks Bill. Nice account of a two-day ride of the first stage by Tim Moore, author of a book on riding the entire Tour route a few years ago, though a month ahead of the peloton, hardly capturing the fervor of The Race. The most telling comment from this article came from the president of a local cycling club saying that the coming of The Tour to Leeds had made motorists less irritable towards cyclists.