We will do everything to avoid paying these ridiculous camping fees. Asking people is the key. That's how you hook up with hassle free camping. I think my people skills have improved from all this and there's plenty to come. On our side is the fact that people here are extremely nice and they're intrigued by our mode of travel. We pull up to Beverley and Celia, two women chatting by the side of the road, and ask them if there is a spot for us to put up our tent for the night. A conversation starts and we find out that Beverly is none other than Josie Dew's in-laws and that Josie will be here tomorrow if we want to meet her. Celia tells us that she is on the parish council and that we can camp on the public land that is at the back of her property. We set up on a nice piece of grass next to a swamp about five metres away. The mosquitoes are here to greet us. In the morning, we head over to Beverley's place. There, we meet her husband Richard who, much like John Hancock, is going out of his way to print maps and gather information for us. They even serve us coffee and cereal while we wait for Josie Dew. When she shows up it's lunch time and we are invited again. The food is amazing. I especially liked the coronation chicken with apricots. Very tasty. We chat away with Josie and exchange stories. Beverley's younger sister, who seems to be naughty by nature, calls Michèle a cradle robber for being 7 years older than me. Much to our surprise, Josie tells us that New Zealand has some of the nastiest drivers she's ever encountered. It is apparently very dangerous to cycle there as motorists don't seem to care about the safety of cyclists. Maybe we will skip New Zealand after all. At around 3 pm we have to say goodbye because we have to get to Oxford where we will be staying for several days with our friends Gil and Caroline. We want to say thanks Beverley and Richard for inviting us into your home.
We are off again just in time for a rain storm. So, it's off to Reading where we will take the train to Oxford. During the ride, I have to listen to this kid whine about how he's unable to get the high score on his video game. Instead of telling him to shut up, his mother rubs his back telling him that it's alright. In Oxford, Caroline is there to greet us. We head to the pub and catch up on life. Later on, Gil comes home. He is funnier than ever. Their dog Pepper has been known to cut the occasional farts. Gil tells us to think of it as a fine cheese.
The main reason that we're in England has finally come. The third and last rabies vaccine. 106 pounds later we walk to Oxford to meet Gil. He takes us to one of the many colleges. Huge properties that look like something out of a Harry Potter movie. They are immaculate. It must cost so much to up keep. Culturally, it's interesting that these things still exist. But it's extremely exclusive and expensive to be part of one. But today, school is not in session and there are lots of visitors. Everyone is taking the same shot. Areas are chained off and arrows point to the direction of the visit. You can only imagine the charm and authenticity of the place when classes are in session. But we are just observers. A very special type: The tourist.
The rabies vaccine has hit me harder than I thought. We decide to stay one more day and take a relaxing stroll to see J.R.R Tolkien. You can still nerd out even on a world cycling trip. His grave is well kept up with a few knick-knacks left behind by fans. Things like Elfish writing and the occasional ring. Thanks Gil and Caroline for letting us stay.
The next destination is upon us. Jann and Geoff are another set of Michèle's distant relatives. Do I need to mention that they were extremely nice to us? We stayed with them for two days. During which they took us to dinner to a really nice pub. The place has very low ceilings, a fire place and lots of stuffed animals. Very cozy. Soon it's time for dessert.
- You're going to order something naughty are you? says Jann.
Jann has been a vegetarian since she was 12 years old. When I ask her the reason she tells me that she was fed awful food during her childhood. Things like sausage and gristle and liver and veins. Not sure about that last one but it sounds disgusting. One of the days off we spend trying to decide where to go next. A frustrating exercise. After looking at train prices we decide to keep cycling north. Thank you Jann and Geoff for your hospitality.
The next day, after passing Chequers, the ride quickly becomes uninteresting. There is a lot of traffic and it feels like a never ending maze of suburbs. We ride all the way out to Milton Keynes. This is a new city and has nothing interesting about it. We follow the bike path all the way to the one and only youth hostel where we ask if there is room. The care taker, a young hipster type, tells us in a snot-nosed manner:
- No. Fraid not. Should have booked ahead.
We ask him if we can camp:
- No. Fraid not.
The first prick we've met in England I guess. But we can’t think about that because we're starting to worry about where we are going to spend the night. Can't wild camp that's for sure. A tension builds. Being more worried than I am, Michèle goes into a pub to ask if there is accommodation somewhere in town. I stay outside and sulk. At least it's not raining I say to myself. When Michèle comes back out of the pub she has a huge smile on her face. That's always good news. Turns out that the owner of the pub is willing to let us camp in the back! There, problem solved. We set up camp with a pint. It's noisy and free. I love it!
In the morning, it takes us forever to get out of Milton Keynes. It's busy highway or poorly marked bike paths. We finally get on the bike path number 6. It's very well indicated at first, but this path eventually leads us to a huge staircase. We have to lug our bikes up it and at the top, number 6 is nowhere to be found. That's it, we sticking to the road map. But before we do that, we have the privilege to stumble upon one of the numerous canals that England has to offer. We decide to follow it for a while. It’s beautiful and very unique. Much like the peniches in France, people travel along these canals in Narrow Boats. Some people even live on them year round. I try to take a peak inside some of the nicer ones. Very luxurious. One of them has a small living room with chesterfield chairs. I imagine myself sipping tea and smoking a pipe.
Late afternoon rolls around and it's time to start asking around for places to camp. We're not having much luck. Might be a B & B night. We pull up to one. B & Bs are more like hotels here and there's usually a pub attached to them. So, I go into the pub and ask if there is room. He tells me he's full up. Then I ask him if there is a spot to put up our tent for the night. He says yes and that we can camp in the back if we want to. Great, this asking thing is working pretty well.
In the morning we pack up quickly. We write a thank you note and head off. We stop a few miles down the road to have some breakfast next to an old church. I guess all churches are old around here. The priest (or vicar I guess) shows up and asks us if we want to visit the church. Great! I really have to use the bathroom. We walk around the church and he gives us a wee guided tour of the place. He bounces a few facts but I only retain one: George Washington's great great great grandfather is buried there. Well ... it's time to go. He gives us a few directions and we are off again. We pass by him as we head down the hill and wave goodbye. He waves back as he raises the English flag.
Using the train we fastforward to Derby. We have a WarmShowers contact there who did a world cycling trip. Guided by google maps, we are greeted by a hellish ride to Diane and Richard's place. Traffic everywhere. Turns out the there is a traffic free bike path going all the way to their place. When we finally get there we are received like king and queen. Diane and Richard are experienced cycle tourists and are well travelled. During dinner, the conversation has no silences as we share similar stories about leaving it all behind. Richard shares his anxiety that he encountered when quitting his well paying job at Rolls Royce. He says that in hind sight he would not hesitate a second to do it again. It feels very comforting to hear this. We needed a bit of a moral boost. It seems that there is always a good thing waiting when trudging through difficult times. "If you want the rainbow you have to put up with the rain". Dolly Parton said that. And she's not just another great pair of tits [David Brent, The Office]. We finish up Diane's amazing food and we're off to bed because they have to head to work early the next day.
In the morning, it's fastforward again but this time to Penrith. We want to skip over the last of the densely populated areas.
To be continued ...