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?


Anonymous said...

George the meat pie is good cycling fule , second only to spag bol and the old stand by tined corn. the poms also have good fish and chips.
thanks for your reports, vincent

dworker said...

ON getting a campsite next to London. At first, it would sound difficult. But when you look about, there are literally campsites all over for bicyclists. Because it is so easy to hide a bike. I read your posts, and I want to bike tour right now. On a plus note, Susan and I are cycling every day here in Springfield. To class, stores, restaurants. We are in the old part of the city and it is easy and convenient, with bike lanes too.

Stuart said...

Northampton Library has busts of Carnegie and George Washington? I wouldn't think George Washington would go over too well there in the UK. Wasn't he one of those rebellious colonists?

george christensen said...

Stuart: There's actually a statue of Washington in Trafalgar Square as well. The Brits respected him and the American colonists for their fight for indepence. They refer to what the Americans call the Revolutionary War as the American War for Independence.

Rick Oberle said...

I hate those roads with continuous cars. But they are everywhere. One trick I learned to keep them at least a few inches from my elbow was to ride a wriggly line. YOu don't have to vary much, just 6 inches or so, just enough to suggest that you might veer into traffic at any moment. Cars tend to give you a little more room even though you don't really "need" it. I discovered this trick on a 4th of July trip to Northern Michigan on a state highway. Works like a charm in MI, I hope it works the same in England. Safe Travels,