Memorable impressions of Britain

2008-07-15 00:00

My enjoyable summer holiday in England and Wales is over. It is a physical and cultural shock to get back to Howick in winter and I have been pondering the differences between here and there. Most of them I have previously mentioned, but the overall picture can now be filled in.

To remind you, I arrived in England at the beginning of May when spring was in full cry. My friend Jeannette was to be with me but just a few days before our scheduled departure she had to undergo major surgery, so I was on my own and all alone. We had planned a fairly comprehensive cycling tour of the United Kingdom, with a van which my son, Guy, would lend us to travel from one region to the next and which would double as a camping base and mobile storeroom.

For two weeks or so I stayed with Guy and his family in Hampshire, between Petersfield and Portsmouth. I cycled the pretty lanes, enjoying the flowers and woods and almost unprecedented KwaZulu-Natal-type weather, sunny and warm. I then loaded my bike, my kit and my two-man tent and set off to the Isle of Wight, just down the road and a short ferry ride. My idea was to stick to our original rough plan, within wide limits.

Meanwhile, my friend Jim from Hilton had decided to join me for a while. He would arrive three weeks after me and we would meet in Dorchester. So I whizzed around Wight in three days, took a ferry from Yarmouth to Lymington, and pedalled furiously to get to Jim before dark on the due day.

In about 10 days, we cycled some 300 kilometres. It was a wonderful time, riding in scenic country, visiting ancient places, going across silent moors and through bird-filled woods, sharing the rough-and-ready comforts of camping and being sheltered and entertained by kind friends.

Then one wet day my Achilles tendon said “enough” and put an end to strenuous cycling. So we hired a car to tour Devon for three days. Jim then returned home and I took a train back to Guy.

After resting my ankle for several days, I rented a car and with my bike in the back, took off to Wales to see the Gower peninsula, St David’s, the Wye Valley and the Forest of Dean, all of which provided the most satisfying rides and walks in picturesque and tranquil settings. Away from the busy main roads, it is unbelievably peaceful and pretty. The road back to Guy’s took me to the Thames Valley, the Cotswolds, and Oxford.

Oxford is pure inspiration. Many superlatives suit it, but the one which to me best conveys the sights, the history, the very feel of the place, is majestic. One realises that it is nothing short of marvellous that mankind, which is responsible for so much that is hideous, vicious, terrible, and worse, could create this divine place. Other cities have their moments — winsome Winchester, beautiful Bath, exciting Exeter and lovely Salisbury — but Oxford is eternity. No wonder it is plagued by tourists (like me).

I never tired of the beauty of this island. One has to see it with one’s own eyes to fully appreciate the scenery, the quaintness and charm, and the awesome antiquity of many places. Even the town centres, usually sprawling in a rather haphazard way dictated by ancient cart tracks and footpaths, can be most attractive. They are invariably clean and neat, pleasing to the eye, full of character and blessedly free of blaring radios, honking hooters, uncouth drivers and hordes of shoving people.

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