Taking in the sights

2008-05-24 00:00

The incredible — for England — weather continues. In the 12 days that I’ve been here, it has rained only one morning, plus a few showers at night. It is sunny and warm, even hot, like autumn at home.

Everything is lush and green, tree foliage is fully emerged and lawn mowers are busy. Horse chestnuts and hawthorn are in full flower. Bluebells and cowslips are starting to look a little tired after their exuberance of the recent past. Buttercups and common speedwell are making a show where the grass is short. It’s quite difficult to discover the names of flowers and birds. Most people who I ask admit, usually apologetically (the older ones) or almost defiantly (the younger), that they don’t know. Some will say anything, like the hirsute young man who told me that a lilac was a bluebell — that’s calling an elephant a rhinoceros.

Guy (my son) and Yvonne went to Exeter and Bristol on business last week, and took me along. Wherever I’ve been, the countryside is just beautiful. The scene always is painted mainly forest green interspersed with dark-green wheat fields, paler ryegrass meadows and flamboyant patches of bright yellow oilseed rape in full bloom. Villages nestling in the woods and fields show reddish, with the inevitable spire a dismal grey.

Close up, the houses are mostly built of red brick, a few of grey flint, perhaps in addition to brick, and a small number are painted white. Roads that wind between and through the villages are mostly peaceful, narrow (often less than three metres wide) and bordered by trees or hedges. These lanes are usually almost deserted any day of the week and are lovely to pedal along in silence other than the singing of birds.

Some country roads have been widened and they are best avoided, for obvious reasons. Still bigger roads usually have dedicated cycle lanes either painted on the road — perhaps just a white line, sometimes a broad, red track — or a tarred strip separated from the main roadway by a kerb. In the cities, the arterial roads are jam-packed with traffic, while the lesser streets are clogged with parked cars.

Motorists are careful, courteous and especially considerate of cyclists. Bicycles are common except on the motorways. It is not only young people on bikes but even grannies do their shopping and visiting on two wheels.

Our trip was uneventful, quick and comfortable. I feel safe on these roads, although the traffic is fast, because nearly all drivers obey the rules — they have no choice for here the police do their job. At exciting Exeter I explored the ancient city wall with Guy. We marvelled at crooked, centuries-old houses and the well-preserved castle, nearly 1 000 years old. I goggled at a plaque commemorating the last witches to be convicted and hanged 325 years ago; it piously hopes for an end to intolerance.

From Exeter we went to Bristol, another Roman city, where we spent the night (a room in a modest but nice hotel cost £155, plus £13 for breakfast: about R2 600). An attractive town with lots of ancient history, Bristol seems to have more churches than pubs, which abound. We stopped at beautiful Bath on the return journey. The place reeks of antiquity, but for now I can’t tell you more.

• Rupert Jones is currently on a two-month cycling trip around the United Kingdom.

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