Thursday, March 22, 2018

Bydgoszcz and Torun, just.

I'd been reading about this seemingly impossible to pronounce city in Poland for over a year and had managed to elevate my interest levels to near obsession before I'd even set foot on the plane to Bydgoszcz - a task which would soon prove to provide an unexpected challenge - so naturally I was quite excited to be finally on my way there.

I refuse to pay standard parking prices at airports- or anywhere if I can avoid it - so for many years now I've been a loyal customer of Justpark, a peer to peer online parking community where you rent a spot on a person's drive who lives close to an airport for a vastly cheaper price.  I have a relatively new contact for Stansted, a elderly chap called John.  Problem was - and I only realized this en route - was that every time I've used him it's been during daylight hours, his house is very hard to find down a narrow unmarked track and his postcode dumps you vaguely in the vicinity, not outside his house.  I drove to the postcode as indicated by Tom Tom and immediately realized I was in a world of trouble.  I didn't recognize a thing and just like the first time I came here I was stationary in a lane in the middle of nowhere with not even the first clue where I was. It was pitch black, no street lights or houses anywhere to try to get a bearing and no phone signal to call John to ask for help.  I drove around the frequently flooded anonymous country lanes hoping to see something I recognized but nothing and I was now convinced I would miss the flight; the flight was 0640 and at 0545 I was still fumbling around the bleak lanes five miles from the airport.  I was now faced with a binary choice:  a mad dash to the official long stay car park and pay drive up prices or give up and go home. Despite it being fifty-five minutes until departure I decided to give it a bash; however forlorn my chances appeared to be.

I got to the car park at 0605, shed a small tear at the £21 daily rate (it was £10.50 the last time I used it) and was grateful to be directed to one of the closest zones and waited for a transit bus to the terminal. It was 0615 when I got on the bus and was berating myself for even attempting to make the flight.  The bus driver was more optimistic, saying he'd known passengers to make it with fifteen minutes left. When we got to the terminal this is exactly what I had left prior to departure. With a 'good luck' from the driver I ran. I begged the lady on security to let me use the fast track which she kindly did, nothing on my person or in my bags activated any x ray alarms and from there it was a sprint to the distant gate 46 barging my way through crowds and knocking into several annoyed fellow passengers. I arrived, sweating and breathless and by some miracle, not only was the plane still there and the doors still open at 0635, they also let me on. I was genuinely flabbergasted I had made it.  I located my seat and collapsed into it, dizzy from exhaustion.

Upon arrival I passed the time during the long wait to clear passport control chatting to a Polish lady in her 60's who was nice and had a strange mannerism of half whispering as she spoke and laughing at the end of each sentence. I walked through the arrivals hall of Bydgoszcz's tiny airport to a line of waiting taxis. A friendly, stocky driver approached me, greeted me in English and beckoned me to take a seat in the front.  He was a very nice chatty man who told me he is a qualified engineer but couldn't find work in his chosen profession so took to cabbing to make ends meet.  His English was very good despite only having learnt what he knew from working in Glasgow for two years. We chatted about that, my reason for being in Poland and it was a genuinely pleasant short journey to the train station. I never caught his name but he very much reminded me of Hugh Rowland, the 'Polar Bear' from Ice Road Truckers. 

What do you think?

'Hugh' dropped me off at the main train station, Bydgoszcz Głowna. I guess now would be a good time to explain something. In spite of my enthusiasm for visiting Bydgoszcz stated previously I wasn't actually spending my first day here. When I told the Missus of my desire to go to Bydgoszcz she told me that the city has a more far illustrious, better known neighbour called Torun. In all my focussing on Bydgoszcz I failed to investigate the wider area and missed this little gem. I discovered that it's a world heritage site, a beautiful medieval city and held in very high regard by the Polish people. Curiosity and a desire to use my time here to its maximum potential led me to decide to split my time between these two cities. My curiosity for Bydgoszcz was still strong and I was very much looking forward to exploring here tomorrow, but for now it was a fifty five minute train ride to Torun, in first class of course. 

The journey to Torun was exceptionally comfortable: wide seats, lots of leg room and free WiFi. Polish trains have come a long way since my first experience in 1999 where a sixty kilometre journey took over two hours and I could see the track through a hole beneath my seat. 

Partly because my time here is limited and partly because I'm almost eight kilos over weight and massively out of shape I passed on the three kilometre walk with luggage and took a taxi from Torun Głowny and went to my hostel called Green Hostel in central Torun. I was too early to check into my room but the lady on reception allowed me to dump my bag and began my exploration of this fascinating and pretty city. I turned towards the Rynek (Old Square) and found my path completely blocked, firstly by a line of heavily armed riot police and behind them a very angry sounding protest. I wondered if it was to do with the unpopular Polish government, The Party for Law and Justice and if so maybe I should about foot and avoid the area; however it turned out to be a protest for female rights and celebrating 100 years of the Female Movement in Poland.

The Missus had lovingly prepared  'The Schedule' for me before I left, some in depth research of suggestions on the best places to see, it's very handy and ensures that Scatterbrain here doesn't miss out on a jewel in the crown somewhere - case in point, first time I went to Krakow I missed Wawel Castle...

The Schedule suggested for me the once a day English tour of the famous Gingerbread museum  as it's not allowed to just turn up, this being a must see attraction for Torun I didn't want to miss out so I booked a spot for 1500. This left me several hours to explore the city.

I ventured slowly down the central medieval street of the Old Town of Torun, Rozana and was immediately struck by how beautiful it was. Pedestrianized throughout with high classical townhouses of varying colours and pleasing architecture. I immediately knew it was a good choice in coming here.  

Torun is one of the oldest cities in Poland, having existed since the 8th century. Part of the legendary Hanseatic Trading League and was once a Royal City of Poland. It was one of a few Polish cities to completely escape damage during World War Two and thus the medieval centre is original. It was declared a World Heritage Site and then added to a list of The Seven Wonders Of Poland. It is famous too as the birthplace of the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus. 

                                         Copernicus Statue.

Another thing that Torun is famous for, or should I say infamous, is the intense mutual hatred that exists between it and neighbouring Bydgoszcz. It is so intense that visitors are advised not to mention one city in the other. Torun prides itself on its UNESCO status, history, culture, science and for the aforementioned Copernicus, whereas Bydgoszcz points out it is bigger and more economically significant to the region. The history of the bitterness between the two cities goes back over six hundred years. Torun was made a Royal city and was part of the Hanseatic Trading League, Bydgoszcz was a border city set up primarily to defend the Polish state. Trade wars quickly erupted and ships on the Vistula River headed to Torun were either attacked or not permitted to pass. In retaliation Teutonic Knights from Torun attacked Bydgoszcz and caused significant damage.  Generally over the years Torun has been thought of as the prettier, more interesting of the two whereas Bydgoszcz developed a reputation as the more industrial workhorse of the region. Things however changed upon the advent of communism after the end of World War Two. The Soviets preferred to prioritize the workforce or proletariat and manufacturing over art, culture and heritage and immediately favoured Bydgoszcz over Torun for investment as its reputation and status as a workers' city was more keeping with Soviet ideology. Suddenly Torun was not top dog anymore and Bydgoszcz seized this chance immediately. Major government offices were switched to Bydgoszcz, university campuses, cultural institutions and significantly and painfully, the local radio station. Many Torunians (not sure if this term exists, it does now) still cannot forgive their neighbour for this! 

I just wandered slowly, taking in the sights along to the old town or Stare Miasto to the beautiful market Square, the Rynek Staromiejski.

 Right in the centre is the imposing Town Hall, one of the most impressive Gothic buildings anywhere in Europe.

I had been given a photo mission by the Missus- to find and photograph the Filus Monument, no other information other than that. When I found it, conveniently located just behind the main square, I found it was a cute dog with an umbrella who was the subject of a long running cartoon of over fifty years and the loyal sidekick of Professor Filutek, the work of the legendary cartoonist Zbigniew Lengren.

I have a terrible fear of heights as some people know- if I had a fiver for every building I've paid to climb up over the years and had to turn back half way I wouldn't have the debt I have now- but I was determined to climb up this one as I knew the views at the top would be stunning. I paid my 13zl and nervously headed to the wooden stairs winding their way to the top.  Despite trembling knees I did make it to the top somehow, and went outside to take in the view I had earned - sure it didn't disappoint. 

Once back on Terra Firma and feeling quite hungry there was only one option for me for lunch- one of my favourite Polish institutions: Bar Mleczny or Milk Bar. It's a cheap cafeteria that became very popular during communist times for providing a cheap homely meal for the proletariat in nearby factories. They have gladly survived the end of communism and have become a niche in their own right and part of Polish tradition. I love them for the struggles they invariably cause me. Most do not cater for tourists still- and rightly so- and have menus written only in Polish with a bewildering choice of options and a lady behind the till who speaks only Polish, the food sold by weight, not portion and cooked by her mother just behind in the kitchen. I am often left trying to guess what to have or spotting something another customer has ordered and adopting the 'I'll have what he's having' method. But the food is always fabulous, freshly cooked on site and good simple homely fare. I love Milk Bars and always will.

With belly full I walked on to the water front, it was bitterly cold and grey so I didn't linger long. I bought a waffle from a street vendor, the server smothered the thing in icing sugar which blew all over me once I had stepped away into a headwind, and I must have looked like I had a serious recreational drug habit. The waterfront was pretty and I was looking forward to seeing it in all its glory at night time when it's fully illuminated. But for now I went in search of the 'Leaning Tower of Torun', one of the city’s most famous land marks. It's just a short walk through one of the medieval gates from the water front and it really strikes you by how much it actually does lean.

With time fast approaching 1500, the meeting time for the beginning of the Gingerbread Museum Tour, I headed there which was just around the corner from the leaning tower.  The small waiting room was immensely packed already and I had to fight through crowds to get to the ticket office, which was staffed by a flour covered baker who was also the Gingerbread Master Baker too.  We waited a fair while before being guided up to the first floor and beginning of the tour. The aroma of freshly baking gingerbread just hits you as you enter the room in the most pleasant way.

Local law states that only members of the Bakers Guild are allowed to make gingerbread in the city of Torun, therefore the first thing we all had to do was swear allegiance to become members of the guild, this was basically promising to not reveal the secrets to outsiders. This is conducted under the watchful supervision of the Master Baker. We were also introduced to the Ginger Bread Witch who knows everything about spices and is generally quite cheeky and cheerful; she also claims to be more knowledgeable than Copernicus himself.  Members of the newly appointed guild then take part in making fresh gingerbread dough from the ingredients on the table with one volunteer doing one step with colourful information and commentary provided by the Baker and Witch throughout. The witch explained that the dough we had just made wasn't actually for us which left a few people quite puzzled. She then explained that the dough needs to be stored for at least three months before it is baked; we would be using dough prepared three months ago by another group and ours would be stored for a future group. The Master Baker told us that the dough never goes off and the oldest dough ever used to make gingerbread was an incredible sixty three years old. We then divided into smaller groups for the part I was most looking forward to; making my own gingerbread. We were guided to one of three smaller tables with rolling pins, oil and cutters and invited to take a piece of dough and make whatever we wanted. I took a press of what I assumed was the city crest of Torun and made a piece before placing it on the baking tray to cook in a wood oven.

It was brilliant fun and I loved every minute of it. To fill the time waiting for our creations to bake we went to the next floor for a brief talk on the ovens and dough making machinery before going back to our tables and claiming our own gingerbread, fresh from the oven.  I can honestly say I don't think I've had such fun in any museum anywhere, the staff were brilliant, everyone was involved and it's a genuinely joyous experience. One of the best museums I've ever been anywhere. I once went to a museum in Bucharest- The Museum Of The Romanian Peasant- intriguingly praised by Lonely Planet as "a museum so good you might want to hug it". That particular museum was absolutely rubbish, this one however I could have hugged, several times. 

I left to return to my hostel for a rest, very happy with the experience and some very happy memories, not to mention a bag crammed full with gingerbread and one or two concerns floating around my mind on how the hell I was going to get it all home in one piece.

In the fading light the streetlights came on and gave the city a fabulous orange glow and made it look even more beautiful than it did by day. I wandered around the Rynek before heading back to the hostel.

At half past seven, after a rest, I ventured back out to the old town for dinner; a well placed advert had made my decision for me- a Polish Dumplings restaurant and another one of my favourite things about Poland, pierogi! I headed to Pierogarnia and had a lovely meal of dumplings, pastry filled with any filling you can think of. I chose wild meat with a bacon and onion side, and it was delicious. 

I made the mistake of pigging out on the bread and dips as I was so hungry and made the second mistake of ordering five, not three. Halfway through the second one I was beginning to struggle. The waitress took pity on me and suggested a takeaway box for the two remaining dumplings thus saving me the embarrassment of leaving two out five, a situation I suspect she had seen many times before. I didn't really want to take them away but took them anyway. I made the further mistake of ordering desert before returning to my hostel to leave my bag for the final and I was hoping one of the most impressive sights of Torun, the illuminated view of the Old Town from across the river at night. On the way back I spotted a homeless old lady rummaging through a rubbish bin so I gave her the pierogi, she was very grateful and I was glad to have helped and that they hadn't gone to waste.

The Missus and her Schedule informed me that there is a dedicated viewing platform called Vistula Panorama for the famous waterfront view of Torun but at over three kilometres walk from the hostel I decided to get a taxi and walk back. The taxi dumped me in quite a dark dingy part of town, a less than salubrious dark wooded area with a number of shady looking characters hanging around drinking beer from cans. Fortunately it's also a very popular tourist spot at night for the incredible view over the river Vistula of the illuminated Old Town. Unfortunately an extremely bright light which was illuminating a city gate on the other bank provided some unwanted light pollution and prevented any real quality photos from being taken, it really was a shame I did take some photos and took in the stunning panorama before heading back. 

I have this weird thing I like to do when I visit places I like, on my last day anywhere I like to create a late lasting memory, to say goodbye to wherever I am. So to do this I decided to walk the three kilometres back to the hostel through the Old Town. It was cold and a very light rain was falling, but it wasn't an uncomfortable cold, the kind of soft cold you can feel softly on your face, not the painful biting cold a piercing wind can bring. The light rain was actually quite refreshing. I just had to clear the dodgy wooded area before joining the main road and the walk over the five hundred metre long road bridge over the river back to the Old Town.  From dusk until midnight there was supposed to be an impressive automated light and music show at the Cosmopolis fountain which I had been looking forward to and this was just at the end of the bridge, so I went to the small park in which it was located, however despite waiting for some time it didn't happen which was a shame. All that was left for me was the slowest of meandering walks back through the Old Town, taking in the sights of this beautiful city once last time, it really is at its best at night time. It had a thoroughly pleasant relaxed feel about it with people going about enjoying their evenings with no hint of trouble whatsoever; this reminded me once again why I like Poland so much.

I returned to the hostel thoroughly exhausted but very happy at such a satisfying day, had a shower and crashed into bed.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Romford to Central London at night.

When Chris suggested a night ride into London I have to admit I was a little sceptical, I'd never done a night ride before and I wasn't sure I'd enjoy it. I was itching to try out my new fancy pedals so I went for it. I'd bought these new pedals and shoes called SPD's which your feet lock into and are meant to make cycling easier. The man in the cycle shop advised me to practice a lot leaning up against a wall to perfect the unlocking your feet technique. Foolishly, and I can't emphasise that enough after riding up and down my road several times, after managing the technique but coming nowhere close to mastering it, I set off to meet Chris at Romford.

I'm ashamed to admit my first falling off came sooner than I thought- 300 yards from my house at the junction with the main road. I had to stop quickly to allow a van to pass and ended up on the pavement, still very much attached to the pedals much to the amusement of a passing car full of boy racers.
I couldn't even make it to Benfleet station without another pedal mishap, although this one was more annoying and embarrassing than painful. I stopped outside a shop and leaned against the wall, and and just couldn't disconnect from the pedals. It took me a full ten minutes to free my feet.I got to Romford without further incident via Upminster and the 1970's train that runs between the two.
I met up with Chris outside the station and we headed off, south at first via Dagenham and Barking. This was not the prettiest area and roads were quite busy. Somewhere in Barking I had another pedal related accident. Roads were quite busy and we were approaching a set of traffic lights. I forgot to 'clip out' of the pedals and of course the lights abruptly changed to red. I couldn't clip out either foot and with the back of the car in front rapidly approaching I hit the adjacent pavement hard, with my left hand taking the full impact of the fall. It hurt like hell as did my pride, especially when a passing woman stopped to check if I was OK.
After dusting myself down we carried on through the rest of Barking to the Cycle SuperHighways, a Ken Livingstone project designed to aid cycling into the capital. We kept to the vivid blue paths where they existed through Beckton, getting constantly frustrated by the inexplicable disapearance of the blue cycle paths. We stopped at a petrol station in Newham for a mars bar where Chris tried to loosen off my pedals and I noticed some blood seeping through my trousers from a previously unnoticed wound...The Cycle Superhighway thankfully departed the A13 and we headed south, trundling through East India Dock and Canning Town into the start of Canary Wharf and the Docklands area.

We were soon in Wapping and the location where the Only Fools and Horses episode He ain't Heavy He's My Brother was filmed. Suddenly, standing there looking at the now converted Docklands warehouses, everything Uncle Albert said in that episode made sense. You could just imagine workers unloading goods onto the dockside,ships coming and going and the hustle and bustle of a trade belonging to another era. The London docks had to close as the world developed and the shipping trade used bigger ports upriver, but standing here amongst all the trendy multi million pound apartments that the docks were converted into was quite thought provoking.

Then we rolled into Wapping with impressive views of Canary Wharf skyscrapers next to us.

We stopped off at London's oldest Dockside pub, The Prospect of Whitby. It was a charming old pub and we stopped for a quick drink. We sat outside with glorious views of the Thames and enjoyed the unseasonably warm evening weather. I'd never have thought it possible to sit outside anywhere and be comfortable in February.
We then moved on a short way further along into Wapping to a pub Chris knew of that I was looking forward to, The Captain Kidd pub. It was a microbrewery which meant no mass produced beers like Stella or Guiness, only beer produced by the Samuel Smith brewery themselves. Captain Kidd himself of course was a famous pirate, executed near here in 1701.It was a lovely atmospheric old pub and very cheap indeed.

Nearing the end of the ride now we approached St Katherines Dock that I insisted we ride through, Chris had to fend off a potentially inflammatory moment with a large group of Asian youths with an attitude problem, all he did was say " alright" as we passed them at a gate to the Thames Path. It passed without incident but being totally outnumbered.
We stopped off for a some spectacular night shots of Tower Bridge. Chris, having worked in this area for years wasn't as impressed as I was but it has to be said, Tower Bridge at night is one of the most spectacular sights in the world. I can only apologise for spoiling the view below...

Just to do it justice, here's one without a sweaty cyclist in the foreground.

With only St Katherine's Dock left that I insisted we cycle though, Chris and I went our separate ways at 2245, me to Fenchurch Street and Chris to Liverpool Street. I had enjoyed a thoroughly different ride and let's be honest, it made a change from Kent!

Total milage: 22.

Footnote: An x-ray today showed nothing broken...

Friday, February 17, 2012

Canvey to Kent

Whenever I've gone for a ride around Kent via the Tilbury Gravesend ferry I always get the same response from Chris, " why didn't you ride to Tilbury then?" It was always doubt over
my fitness levels and a desire to keep those twenty miles 'in the tank' to burn south of the water.But yesterday, well the day before actually, when I noticed the weather forecast said it would be a mild 10c and light winds I thought, let's see how tough that twenty mile trek to the Tilbury ferry actually is. The time taken to get to the ferry and my fitness levels woul determine how far I'd cycle on the other side.

On the bridge by Benfleet Station

Decked out in my new Hi Vis cycling gear I acquired from Ebay for a ridiculously cheap amount I set off for Tilbury. My only real decision was how I would get to the old A13 and the way west- the busy and potentially dangerous A130 Canvey Way or the route all the cycle route planning websites recommended and go through Benfleet. I'd ridden Canvey Way before and not only are the cars whizzing past at 50mph without a buffer of a cycle lane it is monotonous and tiring. It was an easy choice, 'Benfleet, A(n) Historical Development' it would be. Just passing onto Benfleet from the bridge is the 'Welcome to Benfleet' sign which has caused a weird grammatical debate. The signwriters and indeed the council believe the correct way to phrase the tagline is ' A Historical Development', however locals believe it should ' AN Historical Development. Cue someone continually adding an 'n' after the 'a' and the council rubbing it off again.

I coasted through Pitsea and and Vange, stopping only to take a photo of a haggard looking old cat.

Crossing Five Bells roundabout I was into Fobbing and on the old Southend Road west, stopping for a a photo by the NCR sign that I seem to spend half my cycling time looking out for.

I continued on through Corringham with the first sign of tiredness creeping into my legs at the 10 mile mark, exactly halfway to Tilbury. At Stanford Le Hope I got a little disorientated and and had to ask the way to Tilbury and I was glad it was the downhill option over the railway tracks via the nice little village of Linford.

Are these self taken photos looking a bit 'samey'?

A welcome very steep downhill stretch at Tilbury saw me hit 32mph and dumped right in on the edge of the town centre, which is a pitiful depressing looking eyesore if ever I saw one. Pretty soon I was at the dock, odometer showing exactly 20 miles, I was proud I'd finally done it. I was also pleasantly surprised, if not overwhelmed, that the ride through some south Essex towns that would hardly be described as salubrious, was actually quite nice.
It was mainly countryside once I was past Five Bells and only the eyesores of Pitsea and Tilbury let it down. I even had a nice view over the river at one point.
I managed to arrive at the docks at the time when the ferry stops running for an hour for the operator's lunchbreak so I just waited, chatting to another passenger.There were plenty of people waiting and it always surprises me how popular this service is.
I didn't have a definite plan on what to do once I'd hit Kent and Chris suggested Meopham, a nice village that claims to have the longest village street in Kent, at 7 miles long. With time running short I decided to give it a go, stopping for an English Breakfast in Gravesend first and thus piling back on all the calories I'd expended up to that point. Couldn't knock it though, £.2.95 for a breakfast that was so big I could barely finish it.

After leaving the suburbs of Gravesend heading south I had to admit the worst, my legs had gone. I hadn't cycled anywhere in a month and I'd hit the wall, just getting my excuses in early! It's quite hilly there as it's the beginning of North Kent Downs and some hills, well most if I'm honest, beat me.

I eventually rolled into Meopham at around five with nothing open apart from a dodgy looking pub called the Railway Tavern. I know of two other pubs called The Railway Tavern, one in Stanford le Hope and the other in Gravesend. Both are the kind of pubs where people stop talking and look at you the moment you walk in. Meopham's own Railway Tavern wasn't quite so unfriendly but not by much. It was definitely a local pub for local people and I'm sure that in past generations sawdust would've been sprinkled on the floor.

I only saw the first part of Meopham, which apparently is a collection of villages in a collective parish. There wasn't much from what I saw but I'm sure there is more to see. The claim to have Kent's longest village street is a bit tedious to say the least; it is simply the A227 which connects Gravesend at the northernmost point to Tonbridge in the south, passing through Meopham and several other villages on the way.
I had a pint of a local Kent ale and headed back to Gravesend for the ferry home, inadvertently making the last possible connection for the last ferry of the day.
I'd had a good day but my lack of fitness concerned me, I'd ridden further than this but suffered less tiredness. Was glad to get home for a long soak in the bath.

Total Miles for the day, 32*

*probably around 2 of those walked...

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Medway Towns, a Nice Surprise and a Failure

I don't want my blog to become a cycling day trips to Kent blog but that's how it appears lately. Think I should arrange a day trip to Belarus or somewhere to redress the balance...

If there was anywhere nicer in Essex I'd ride there but Kent is simply a nicer county. Essex has nothing to compete with the likes of Rochester, Canterbury, Tonbridge Wells, Leeds castle and the town I stumbled across yesterday which I'll write about shortly.

I had to make a ridiculously early start as the last train C2C allows bikes on during the week is the 0559 so I was up at 0500 and on the platform by 0550 looking forward to my day ahead. it was at that point I realised I'd left my cycle route directions print outs at home. It was a lovely refreshing summer's morning, light winds and a perfect day for a pedal.

My plan was to ride from Rochester to Canterbury, a trip of 42 miles. I got to Rochester at 0730 and began the ride via the Medway Towns of Chatham and Gillingham trying to find the annoyingly elusive National Cycle Route signs. I got hopelessly disorientated in Chatham but eventually, after 45 minutes of wasted time made my north up to Gillingham, where disorientation set in again and I had to ask in an estate agent which way a certain street I was looking for. I'd managed to find the route I'd left at home on my phone but it was impractical not mention draining the battery to keep checking it.

I followed several nice cycle paths, after finding the NCR1 going through the Saxon Shore Way but then got hopelessly and completely lost in the middle of beautiful countryside full of cider apple orchards. An elderly local man told me the way to go but it turned out to a bridleway with a gate designed to prevent cyclists. They needn't have bothered; I could never have ridden on the surface on the other side anyway.

I pretty much spent the next few hours trying to find the NCR signs, getting lost and asking a variety of postmen, shop owners and builders for directions. I made my way through Rainham- where some nice person had spun one of the few NCR signs round the wrong way which meant I rode up a long road for two miles only to be met with a sign at the other end telling me to go back from where I had come from. Thanks for that.

Well I plodded on through the villages of Newington, Keycol, Milton Regis ( I think) and onto Sittingbourne. Lots of climbs in this area and I have to admit some beat me.

The ride was taking MUCH longer than I had planned, my habit of getting lost and obsessively trying to find the NCR signs had taken their toll. Despite hours of effort I didn't seem to be getting any nearer to Canterbury. I got to Faversham when I realised that if I were to have any time in Canterbury I'd have to jump on a train for the last bit. I asked in a tourist office which way Canterbury was, no one knew where the cycle route was but they estimated Canterbury was still 13 or so miles away. I was gutted to have missed out on my ultimate goal for the day but there was no point in getting to Canterbury and having to turn straight back again.

I have to mention Faversham though, it's a lovely medieval market town. Stunning in fact. I looked around a few streets in the centre and added it to my list of ' Why haven't I Been Here Before?' places. I didn't have time to hang around though and headed for Canterbury, via the depressing means of a southeastern train. I was feeling a bit queasy too, a rushed sausage roll and snickers for lunch in Teynham wasn't probably a great idea.

The depressing way my bike entered Canterbury, propped up on a train...

High Street, Canterbury

OK, I admit I look a pillock here but it seemed a good idea at the time...

I got to Canterbury and walked through to the beautiful old centre. I'd planned to do the full tourist thing here, but arriving at 1500 and my last train back to Gravesend at 1732 for the ferry meant I didn't have much time at all. I went to the Canterbury Tales museum, where they recreate some of the sounds and smells of medieval times coupled with tales from the era. it was in here, in the cool and dark that tiredness hit me. My legs suddenly felt like jelly and I had to sit on the floor during one exhibition. Think the early start and exertion had caught me up. Think I even dozed off for a minute!

For the rest of my limited time there I just walked around the centre, sent a few postcards and just enjoyed being there, it really is one of my favourite places in the UK, possible anywhere.

I got back to Benfleet with my bike computer showing 43 miles, still a personal best. Whilst riding home I decided I wanted to hit the 50 mile mark, problem is my house is 3 miles from the station. This left me 4 miles to find from somewhere. So with my legs feeling surprisingly good I rode to the Point and back via the seawall and Thorney Bay, anything to keep the wheels spinning until the display ticked over to the magical fifty. I may or may not have put both my arms in the air in a end of Tour de France stage win pose when that happened! I was very happy to reach this mark, would never have thought it possible a few months ago.

I'd had a lovely day, seen some lovely countryside and towns but still disappointed I'd not managed to reach Canterbury under my own steam.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

And Another (longer) Ride Around Kent

I arranged a day out cycling with my mate Chris for yesterday. Our intial plan to ride around the Calais region of Northern France was ruled out due to ridiculous ferry costs so we settled on Northern Kent, which as anyone who knows me knows I absolutely love that area. We met up at the Tilbury ferry and made our way over to Gravesend, accompanied by hordes of grey haired tourists on their way to the Pocahantas ferry cruise on the other side, with Chris refusing to believe an Native American Princess could possibly have links with a gritty Kent port town. But Chris, I am happy to inform you that after marrying an English settler, a Mr John Rolfe on April 5th 1614, she moved to England in 1616 with her husband, settling in Brentford, Middlesex. In 1617 Mr and Mrs Pocahontas decided to move back home to America, however she became seriously ill on board the ship, having only got as far as... Gravesend. She was taken ashore but subsequently died there, thus establishing the unlikely link between an Native American princess and Gravesend.

I have to admit to being a little concerned as to my ability to keep up with Chris over a long ride. For a start Chris is much more experienced than me, fitter and has done many long rides. To put it in perspective, Chris' eighteen mile ride to the ferry from Collier Row was only one mile less than my personal best of nineteen miles which I set a few weeks ago.
We joined the Sustrans route one to Rochester where a problem quickly arose. The pebbly cycle path was fine for my hybrid bike with bigger tyres but it was a nightmare for Chris' road bike with narrow wheels.

We had to take it quite slowly for the length of the path which was around 5 kms. Having got to a proper road we had a lovely downhill stretch where we hit 32mph ( 51kph). However every downhill has it uphill and around the corner this was in the form of a very steep hill near Strood on Ministry of Defence land. Predictably Chris made it up first and took the following photo of me about to explode near the brow of the hill.

Annoyingly immediately at the top of the hill the Sustrans route directed us straight back down again on a different road, I couldn't help but wonder why they couldn't route cyclist around the hill. I felt like one of The Grand Old Duke Of York's 10,000 men...
The route took us through the delightful little village of Upper Upnor, and a more picturesque village you couldn't hope to see. Only two streets with a pub and a church but it was lovely. It's major attraction is Upnor Castle which perches impressively over the River Medway.

We finally got to Rochester after about an hour and 10 minutes with my legs and stamina holding out well so far. I was still mindful of the ride back though. We locked up the bikes to a lamp post in the high street with two locks. We quickly dismissed the Tourist Office bike park as hopelessy useless. I swear the flimsy metal loops could have been cut with a set of nail clippers.
I have never visited the museums here in Rochester so I was happy to go along with Chris' suggestion to go to The Six Poor Travellers House first and then to the Guildhall museum which houses the Prison Hulks Experience; a very lifelike portrayal of life aboard a 17th century prison ship. The Poor Travellers House was founded by a local MP, Richard Watts, to provide shelter for, you've guessed it, poor travellers The bedrooms are exactly as they were and it's a very interesting place to visit.
We had a walk along the High Street and to the Guildhall museum and to the highlight of Rochester's museums. The first part is dedicated to Victorian Life and Charles Dickens and across the street is the Hulk Experience. Complete with sounds and smells it makes for a very authentic experience.

I'd never made it as far as Chatham on my travels around Kent, despite it only being a few miles south of Rochester. It is the complete opposite of Rochester and is where all the chain shops are located. It is a far cry from the charm of Rochester. We cycled down to the High Street where a local driver questioned our rights as cyclists to use the road in somewhat colourful language.
We just breezed through the High Street on our way to the main attraction of Chatham, The Historic Dockyards. Chris had been there before and thought it wasn't worth the £15 admission fee so we just looked at the free bits.

After a surprisingly easy climb back up a hill in Chatham we headed for the Golden Lion pub for their very reasonable burger and a pint for £4.99 deal. Chris somehow got his for £3.99! He did however have an altercation with a Millwall fan in the bar. Chris was wearing his West Ham shirt. For the unitiated, wearing a West Ham shirt south of the River Thames, especially South East of London it's similar to walking into Mecca wearing a Jewish skull cap...

We stopped for a few
photos and
watched the Town Cryer deliver a message and decided to make our way back to Gravesend.

I was feeling the efforts of the ride so far and was a bit apprehensive about the right back, I didn't want to show myself up! Immediately after leaving Strood on the outskirts of Rochester was a very tough climb and this was a real struggle but it was nothing compared to one further along. It was another side of the hill I'd had a problem with earlier and this was very tough. I was struggling to get into my bike's hill climbing gear and once I'd managed it I was at the top. Even Chris admitted he'd found it tough.
Due to the problems with the surface on the cycle path Chris really wanted to find an alternative route back to Gravesend and was convinced another path existed, called the Saxon Way. We found it after riding through a military firing range but it was even worse than what we were trying to avoid. It was just rough off road ground that horses were grazing on and with my tired legs it was impossibly hard going. It was a long distance walkers route completely unsuitable for cyclists. We were cycling right on the southern shore of the River Thames and the views were spectacular but with the ride as tough going as it was we couldn't really enjoy them. We eventually got back to Gravesend and caught the ferry back to Essex. I'd had a great day, pushed my cycling boundaries even further and despite being exhausted I was proud of what I'd achieved.

My total milage for the day was 38, ( 60.8km). I prefer the metric system, sounds much more impressive.