This is a lovely country

2008-06-09 00:00

It has proved impossible to keep you informed on our travels around England. Computers are not readily available to strangers in the small places we visit.

After Jeannette had to withdraw from our venture, Jimmy Mallett of Hilton decided to join me for three weeks. He arrived a week ago and we have had the most enjoyable travels along the rural roads of Hampshire, Isle of Wight, Dorset and Somerset.

The weather has been fantastic: in the 25 days that I’ve been here, I’ve been briefly rained upon only twice. Nights in the tent have been cold — or they were until I resorted to donning all my clothes, except raincoat, then squeezing into my expensive space-age sleeping bag, which has proved more than slightly disappointing.

We eat simply but well. For breakfast we have fruit, muesli and milk, and a Scotch egg or piece of cheese. Lunch is either a pie or bread rolls and cheese, washed down with fruit juice. Supper is typically a couple of meat pies, tomato, fruit and yogurt or custard. We chomp an apple or two on the road and eat quite a lot of chocolate as well. Occasionally we will stop for a beer or cider.

Cheese is both excellent and cheap, far superior to the rubbery stuff we generally get at home and not much more expensive. The variety is amazing, and extremely good eating. Dairy products on the whole are relatively cheap and often we get “two for the price of one”. Everything else is pricey. Bananas are around R4 each. A pot of tea for two cost me over R50. Beer and cider are about R50 a pint — spirits I don’t even ask the price. Train fares are very high, even for the locals who earn pounds. A campsite for our little tent is typically nearly R200 for one night. A pub lunch costs around R110 without drink. A night in a good but not flashy hotel set my son back R2 500, plus R200 for breakfast.

This is a lovely country. The scenery here in the south is always refreshing, green with lots and lots of trees and flowers. The road verges often resemble overgrown flower beds. The little towns and villages are charming, pretty, often quaint, always interesting and clean — not communal rubbish tips like our town centres. The older ones — and they are often many centuries old — have distinctive characters, with distinctive “architecture”, narrow streets that twist and turn all over the show and colourful gardens. Rarely can two cars pass without one giving the other the right of way; it is done graciously and without fuss. One hardly ever hears a hooter. It shames me to imagine our taxis operating here (of course, most would be thrown off the road within a day).

The original houses (excluding the wealthy country estates) were often tiny and uncomfortable, so most will have been modernised, from simply installing electricity and piped water to completely refurbishing the innards, frequently with the addition of extra space. It is done without affecting the character of the house. New houses are normally built to blend into the locality, so one cannot always tell at first glance which houses are old and which new. I don’t recollect seeing anywhere even a single pseudo-Tuscan building of the kind that now widely disfigure Hilton and which, 25 or 50 years hence, will look awfully dated alongside the next fad — perhaps Greek temples?

Place names are commonly entertaining, to say the least. Look in any atlas and sample some for yourself: Piddleton, Sixpenny Handley, Toller Porcorum, Three Legged Cross, Sway and hundreds more.

I have previously mentioned how kind and courteous people are. The English have an undeserved reputation for being stand-offish; our experience so far has been the opposite.

People here enjoy an amazing freedom of movement. Public transport is excellent. Bicycles are common and walking is a very popular pastime. You can walk or ride on thousands of kilometres of dedicated paths, off the roads, through woods, across meadows, alongside fields and streams. Back home, if you dare to leave the public road you are liable to be arrested or possibly threatened by some fool with a gun, as has happened to me near Howick.

I’ll tell you more another time.

• Rupert Jones is cycling around the UK and will be writing regularly about his adventures.

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