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  • Jamie Shannon

A bit of a mad dash up to Manchester. I saw a little on the way too

Resupplied and thoroughly refreshed, I left Brighton four days later heading west, again along the coast, turning inland towards the South Downs. It was here that, finding somewhere to camp became somewhat easier but conversely, more difficult to find water as there wasn't as many houses or businesses around. I found a great place to camp after dark along a mountain bike track but went to bed with my legs itching like hell from a variety of stings and scratches from the bushes that surrounded the area.

Although The South Downs are an agreeable sort of place, commanding brilliant views over the surrounding countryside, I felt a little short changed as you aren’t able to actually visit them. Well at least not on a scale larger than a footpath. It seems that every speck of land is riddled with either crops or animals, domesticated that is, and thus shouldn't be coloured green on a map. Anyway, rant over.

I was very excited to arrive in Winchester the next day as I had read a fair bit about its history and role in various events of the past and was thoroughly awed by its cathedral and other little points of interest. Keeping in line with my historical tour through England, I visited poundland and acquainted myself with two £1 bars of Toblerone, some filter tips and a pack of lighters. I relaxed for a while on the grounds outside the cathedral and spoke to an elderly chap about rummaging through other people’s rubbish in order to locate hidden treasure. I’m sure the watch he was wearing was a Rolex but I think he may have actually bought that one.

From Winchester I cycled west towards Salisbury, another ancient medieval town full of history, but stopped short of it as I found just the perfect place to camp; ample room, safe, quiet and free from nettles. Simply put, perfect. It’s not often that you find these places and so, when I did, I always took advantage.

I was reasonably happy the following morning when, cycling back along the road, I found I had slept at the top of a hill. There isn't a better feeling when, at half eight in the morning, still a little tired and groggy, you find the first ten minutes of the day easy enough to hardly even touch the pedals. Having said that, the hills all the way to Salisbury were undulating which meant I had to push hard on the way up without any real reward on the other side due to the amount of weight I was carrying.

Salisbury is a beautiful town, packed with wonderful buildings and steeped in history. The cathedral itself warrants most people to make the trip. Looking around the town itself though, I realized that, whichever town you seemed to visit in England at least, the center is almost always identical; identical shops, identical people, almost identical pubs. It's as if all towns came off a kind of town conveyor belt. The only places that had a bit of character, it seemed, were the more remote villages and isolated communities.

Cycling north out of Salisbury, the busier A roads were my only option and so I strapped on my horribly uncomfortable cycling helmet and braced myself for the traffic. As it happened I found myself cycling through pleasantly rolling countryside. I encountered but one real hill here but the descent, in beautiful sunshine and around gently curved roads, was more than worth the effort.

In the evening, I came across a private gated area that was forested one side and thought I might be able to camp there. Upon further investigation, I found that it was a private engineering firm and was routinely patrolled by security guards and so I decided to move on. Across the road however was a piece of land behind a building site that did just the trick. I did find a field mouse in one of my panniers in the morning but I think that could happen anywhere.

The next day, I cycled through two towns as diverse in their appearance as they are in their history. Where Cirencester is beautifully rendered, architecturally speaking, Swindon is downright ugly, and if I couldn't really see any noticeable history in Swindon, Cirencester had it in bucket loads. I guess that’s the odd thing about towns all across England; they’re all unique in their own way, but as you may recall, they still all have the same pubs.

Cycling north led me to the stunningly beautiful Cotswolds region. I found it to be exceedingly beautiful, dotted with wonderful villages and meandering views across the countryside which were made even more perfect by the fine weather I was enjoying. The cute little villages looked like they came straight out of a Victorian children’s book. The only real downside being that, every time I wanted to take a picture, It was shielded by a huge coach that seemed to magically dispense tourists at an alarming rate; tourists that all seemed to be wearing exactly the same coloured hat.

By this time however, I was excited to be getting closer to home, and so instead of cycling to my intended destination of Stratford-Upon-Avon, I rode north west as this would take me past, and not through Birmingham, the biggest city in the midlands.

Arriving in Worcester later in the day, I realized with a disproportionate amount of rage that I was one rucksack and three liter's of water lighter. I must have simply left it by the side of the road when I had stopped 10km’s or so earlier. I knew I wasn't going to cycle back to get it as that would require just too much effort and so I reluctantly pressed on. It was beginning to hurt my back anyways so maybe this was better to carry the water on my bike.

In the evening, I found a forest park in which to camp. It was wonderfully secluded and serene which also meant I didn’t have to be so quiet or hidden either. This was always a blessing.

After rising from my ‘bed’ the following morning, I stopped at the next village and devoured a gigantically greasy English breakfast with surprising ease, and afterwards carried on past the Shropshire hills and Kidderminster before becoming rather stuck in Telford.

I found myself cycling along the busy A442, which as I neared the city, expanded into a dual carriageway. There wasn’t much room on the shoulder and the cars were thundering past at speeds I don’t wish to experience again. When approaching a slip road I decided that it would be safer to exit the road, cycle halfway round the roundabout at the top and then use the adjoining slip road to re-join the same dual carriageway. This obviously took a lot more effort as you might imagine but was also a lot safer. Still, my heart did race a few times in the process. This was also the first time that I couldn’t actually find the centre of the city I was in but simply more large A road’s veering off in different directions. Eventually I did find a road leading north to Nantwich, and after all my hard work of staying alive, a bicycle path besides it! I felt very privileged indeed.

I was close to Nantwich, where I came to a little village called Audlem. It was here that I was directed towards the local playing fields where I put up my tent behind a tennis court. Not one person whom I had asked seemed to mind, and it just goes to show that If you do ask, most people are good-nature, particularly outside the cities.

I normally left around 8am in the morning, but along with the fierce wind, the rain was simply torrential and so I relaxed in my tent listening to it crash overhead. I found it to be quite soothing and relaxing however and spent the time enjoying my book. I knew though that my gear would be put thoroughly through it’s paces today.

The final day was all about covering as much ground as possible and simply to cycle north in order to reach Manchester by early evening. When I left, I took the straightest possible route towards home. This took me through Nantwich and then Crewe, where I must admit, I was just a little overjoyed to be hearing the familiar twang of a Mancunian accent again. I was, in effect, a little overwhelmed.

With each passing town; Middlewich, Holmes Chapel, Northwich, I could feel I was getting closer as everything from the accents and the character of the places were becoming more familiar. I was indeed very happy, and after another couple of hours and a phone call with my friend, I was in Altringham where a warm embrace and a pint of ale awaited.

It just goes to show that you don’t have to use a plain to get somewhere, and in using a bicycle, you’ll see and experience a hell of a lot more besides. Magic.

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