Kennet & Avon Canal Cycle Route Overnighter: part 2

Friday, September 11th, 2009

Steep hill climbe up a tree-lined lane in FroxfieldI took my time over breakfast and the Sunday paper with Peter & Carolyn at the Upper Westcourt B&B, leaving about 10am for the 15 minute ride, arriving at The Crofton Pumping Station well before it opened (blog posts on both pumping stations coming up shortly).  Unlike the day before, it was still sunny after this day’s  industrial heritage stop.

The first half of today’s trip would still follow country roads, before rejoining the tow path, but looking at the map, they didn’t diverge as far from the canal, and at least seemed to be less steep.  It turned out that I had multiple opportunities to practice coasting, preceeded of course by the obligatory climb.

Like Saturday, the first half of the trip was characterised by attractive country towns, like Great Bedwyn, and pretty villages, like Little Bedwyn.

The biggest town of the day was Hungerford, which under other circumstances would have been worth a longer stay. On the far side of Hungerford, the road crossed a cattle guard and a gate, and I entered the Hungerford Common Portdown.

Hungerford CommonsThe commons is a 200 acre shared pasture.  I stopped to take some pictures, and watched a farmer walk out to check on his cows, all of whom seemed to have a healthy suspicion of  the road (in spite of the nominal 30mph speed limit).

Kintbury

Kintbury was the last town before rejoining the towpath.  Many of the buildings were built directly on the narrow High Street.  I stopped to take a picture of my bike in front of a colorfully named pub, and then continued on, finally rejoining the canal and towpath at Hamstead Lock. The path was much narrower and yellower than it had been at the start of the trip in Bath.  In many places, it wasn’t wide enough for 2 bikes to pass between the nettles and the canal.

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Kennet & Avon Canal Cycle Route Overnighter: part 1

Wednesday, September 9th, 2009

Pulteney BridgeLast Saturday, my loaded touring bike and I caught an 0813 train to Reading, from whence we continued on a fast 1 hour trip to Bath in Wiltshire. I waited outside the station for my GPS to get a signal, and then I took off into the Saturday morning traffic in this busy tourist town. My goal was to complete the entire Kennet & Avon Canal Cycle Route, which ended 85 miles later, on the other side of a ridge, in Reading, Berkshire. The route crossed the 1773 Pulteney Bridge, which is lined with shops. After about 10 minutes of cycling, and only one wrong turn, I crossed a short bridge, and turned onto the canal tow path. From here to Devises I’d be following a fairly wide and level path, for the most part smooth and well-graded.

Bradford Tithe BarnIt was a beautiful, sunny morning, and I stopped to take off my jacket. After a very pleasant 25 minutes of easy riding through the lovely Wiltshire countryside, I reached my first stop, the Claverton Pumping Station (described in an upcoming blog entry). What I expected to be a rather short visit turned into an almost 1 hour stay. Noticing that the sky was darkening, I begged off the video portion of the tour, unlocked my bike, and pedaled up a steep hill back to the canal level.  During the next several miles, I crossed two very spectacular aqueducts, the Dundas Aqueduct, which was next to a wharf with small crane, and the Avoncliff Aqueduct.  I continued on to Bradford, where I stopped briefly at the early 14th century tithe barn.

Caen Hill Locks In a 2-mile stretch between Foxhanger and Devises, the canal rises 237 feet, for a 1 in 44 gradient. Chief Engineer John Rennie dealt with the steep rise at Caen Hill by building a set of 16 locks in a row. This is considered one of the most significant engineering achievements on the entire British canal system, and in contrast to the Ratty & Mole ambience of much of the waterway, it makes for a dramatic feature.  It requires a lot of water to fill up a lock. In order to ensure enough water for this aquatic staircase, Rennie excavated large basins extending sideways (to the left in the photo above) in front of 15 of the Caen Hill locks.  I rode up the steep hill, passing several bikers who decided to walk, stopped to take a few more pictures of the ponds and narrow boats in the lockes, and then headed into Devises.  It was almost 2pm, it was starting to drizzle, so I asked for directions to a pub. Riding into the center of town, I stopped at The Castle Hotel for a lunch of cottage pie and a pint.  The proprietor of this 18th century pub let me park my bike indoors.

After lunch, I wound through town looking for the Cycle Route. After 10 minutes of what seemed like endless wandering through housing estates, I was suddenly confronted with a steep hill leading down to the canal and its narrow tow path. I walked down. After less than a mile, a sign for the Cycle Route pointed up a steep incline away from the canal. I decided to tough it out, and ride up. It was going fine until I reached the top and had to immediately stop. Fortunately, there was a bed of stinging nettles to catch me.

Ascent in EtchilhamptonDevises is nearly at the top of the canal, and after 22 miles, I naively thought that I was done climbing for the day. The reality was that I would spend the next 24 miles zig-zagging from one side of the Vale of Pewsey to the other, crossing the canal and railroad multiple times.  I climbed to the top of a ridge, where I had a fantastic 360 view of the mostly harvested fields and the ridge far to my north, which included one of Wiltshire’s famous white horses.

After Pewsey, the terrain become a bit more closed in again, with increasingly narrower roads, usually surrounded by hedge rows. Outside of Oare, the road chosen for the cycle route was barely a car width, and it had a light median of grass and gravel. It was also closed to traffic. A road closed sign is either a biker’s dream, or nightmare. I chose the former, and it turned out OK, leading me between beautiful farms with thatched roof houses, usually built on a timber frame several hundred years ago.

Especially after a hard climb to the summit, there is something thrilling about coasting down a long, windy, steep hill, hedgerows full of bramble and barbed wire whistling past your ears as you enjoy the sensation of speed and wind, and idly wonder just what you are going to do if the next turn confronts you with a fully loaded farm vehicle, or just an especially slippery patch of gravel.   I ended up taking a similar opportunity descending a steep road into the terminally charming village of Wootton Rivers.  In this case, it was actually only a Volvo, but given the deeply eroded ditch at the side of the road, it was more than big enough to test the emergency stopping abilities of the Kool-Stop brake shoes. They worked, and everyone came through the event intact. I had to prematurely terminate more than one long coast just in order to follow the bike route.

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My steely new Turkish friends

Monday, December 15th, 2008

Istanbul is a huge commercial center, with clusters of shops all selling similar items. Istanbul08-690.jpgThe area around my hotel is characterized by musical instrument stores–dozens of them, selling all sorts of traditional and electronic instruments. Nearby is a section with dozens of stores selling light fixtures, from huge chandeliers down to small high-tech LED fixtures. This morning, I started in the light district, went thru an electrical supply area, filled with specialty shops, some selling bulbs, some selling circuit breakers, and some selling switches. As I went further down the hill, I found myself in an increasingly lower rent district.

Istanbul08-698.jpgAfter going thru an area of plumbing supply stores, I ended up in a hardware district. Again, most of the stores were hugely specialized. This tiny district of the city is a rabbit warren of little shops, crammed between the waterfront and one of the roads. A few of the bigger stores had multiple clerks, all wearing matching vests, but most of them were 1-2 person shops, often with the owner standing out front. Some of them were chatting with friends, often drinking cups of sweet tea, delivered on a steel tray by a nearby cafe.

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I’ve never seen so many specialized tool and hardware shops before. Down one little alley there would be a couple of guys selling small wheels, like you’d use in a shop or on carts. Another store would be selling chain. The closer they got to the water, the more nautical they became, with shops specializing in anchors, marine fixtures, block and tackles, floats, and little brass things for boats.

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In an area with stores selling paint brushes and masking tape, there were a couple of small shops selling powdered dye, both in bulk and also in plastic bags. Another grimy little shop nearby was selling all sorts of solvents in cans, presumably including linseed oil, so you could make your own paintIstanbul08-711.jpg.

I saw shops selling pneumatic and hydraulic valves, gear motors, cutting bits for lathes and milling machines, micrometers, roller burnishers, nuts, bolts and all kinds of fasteners.

It was nice to spend some time seeing what people actually did for a living, and not constantly being accosted with “Hey, want to look at some rugs!” I don’t think I met anyone who spoke English. I’d hold up the camera and gesture, and most of them were keen to have their picture taken, either amused at the strange foreigner, or flattered that someone from outside their community, let alone outside their country, would be interested in what they were doing. 3 people gave me their card and indicated that they’d like copies of the picture, which I will take care of when I get home. Only one person out and out refused to let me take his picture, but he indicated that I should go next door and take a shot of the neighboring merchant.

(An Istanbul photo page will be uploaded to photos.heiserhollow.net as soon as I can process all my shots.)

Turkey for dinner, and breakfast and lunch

Sunday, December 14th, 2008

Istanbul08-581-Edit.jpgTurkey is a very friendly country. Today I met over 10 people, all of whom sought me out, and said that they wanted to be my friend. They all made it VERY clear that they didn’t want to sell me anything. They just wanted to be my friend. And help guide me.

It started first thing in the morning when a shoe shine guy walked past me, dropping one of his brushes. What are you supposed to do? I picked it up and ran after him, and then he wanted to shine my shoes. My suede Merrill/Hush Puppies.

I walked from my hotel, which is across the Golden Horn, is right next to the Galata Tower, which was left behind by the Italians about 500 years ago. I watched some people fish, I took some pictures, I looked into the train station, which is very quiet, and I kept walking until I reached Hagia Sophia.

Istanbul08-302.jpgBuilt as a Christian cathedral 1400 years ago by the Byzantines, the huge dome and much of the structure is still original. When the Turks took it over, they plastered over the mosaics and erected some minarets. They must have decided that it would make a better tourist attraction than mosque–there certainly are plenty of mosques to choose from–it is now a museum. Much of the original mosaic is still extent, plastered over when the facility was converted to serve Islamic purposes.

Istanbul08-364.jpgI spent almost 3 hours in the Archeology Museum. Filled with stunning artworks from dozens of ancient cultures, it was too much for a single visit.

Nobody who has heard me do a speech on information would be surprised that I took a beeline for an exhibit on early writing, to look at cuneiform and early signature stamps, but before reaching it, I was held spellbound by a section of tiles from the Ishtar gate of Babylon.

The Alexander Sarcophagus, the most spectacular of a number of items recovered from a Phoenician site in Sidon, is worth the trip all by itself.

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After the museum, I went to the Blue Mosque. Then I wandered around for a while, found a greasy spoon for a Doner Kabab, and then I wandered around until it got dark enough for some night shots, after which, I was pooped, and I took another harrowing cab ride back to my hotel. This is one of those countries where the locals don’t think the money is worth anything it if is ripped, which seems to happen a lot, because I had 2 bills missing corners. It took me 10 minutes to convince the cabby that he wasn’t going to get any dollars or euros from me–he could take the Turkish money I had, or he could come into the hotel with me and we could discuss it. He took the bills I had.

I grabbed a meal at a nearby restaurant, and I’m watching the Falcons and Buccs on TV. What a small world. Tomorrow is Topkapi Palace and the Bazaar, and then to a different hotel tomorrow night where we’ll be doing the business meeting on Tuesday.Istanbu08-428-31la.jpg

Chasing St Nick in Switzerland

Wednesday, December 10th, 2008

On December 5, St. Nicholas day eve, Elizabeth and I went to the Swiss town of Küssnacht to attend a uniquely Swiss sort of Christmas celebration. Referred to as the Klausjagen, or Nicholas Chase, it is a parade involving 1000 noisy Swiss guys in the pitch dark. The lights go out, and the parade is led by a team of whip crackers. A bull whip makes a huge amount of noise, and 20 of them, cracking in near unison, are almost deafening. Whip cracking ceremonies, are a tradition in most of the alpine region (extra credit for anyone who can tell me the Tyrolean word for this–I think it starts with a ‘schn’.), probably dating back to various versions of the Wild Hunt folk myth.

Luzern08-644.jpgAfter the whips, the parade quiets down a bit as a hundreds of men slowly swirl around wearing huge illuminated hats, called Iffelen. Shaped like bishops’ mitres, they are gorgeously decorated with colored paper or plastic, and are lit from the inside by candles. Many of the Iffelen have a design on the front that looks like stained glass, while the back may portray a cathedral. A few youngsters had sort of training Iffelen that were only a bit more than a foot tall, maybe not quite as big as a real mitre. Most of the hats were very large, 4-5 feet high, and needed to be carefully supported both on top of the head, and with outstretched arms. A few very large and beautiful hats brought applause from the crowd.

After the parade, we stopped to examine some of the Iffelen while the wearers rested up for the second running of the Klaus. The very largest of the hats were illuminated by 9 candles. I chatted up one of the participants, who all design and make their own hats, and ask him how long it took him. 500 hours. Wow.

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It takes quite a while for all of the Iffelen to swing past. They are followed by Sammichlaus, who looks a lot like a bishop himself. Sammi is attended by 4 men in black robes and black face who are referred to as Schmutzlis (Krampus in Austria). Another folk tradition that has some relationship to the Wild Hunt, 2 Schmutzlis are pictured here a day later, in front of our Luzern hotel, where the lights were much better. You can just barely see the bundle of sticks that one of them is carrying.

This is followed by a band playing the traditional Klaus song, a cloyingly simple 1-bar melody that only consists of three notes. It kind of sticks in your brain, after you’ve heard a couple hundred untuned stanzas.

Luzern08-405.jpgThe next part of the parade consists of groups of men slowly walking in unison, ringing large steel bells called trycheln that are hammered out of steel, making for a relatively light bell (given that it is the size of a bowling ball bag), with a somewhat unpleasant sounding clang. You know how some harsh instruments are smoothed out when a lot of them play together, like bagpipes or violins? Well, in this case, the opposite happens.

Pictured here while walking to the parade, before the lights were extinguished, trycheln ringers have to affect a very stilted, Frankenstinian sort of walk in order to strike in unison. It makes for a very eery effect. As shown here, many of these guys were smoking some sort of long skinny things.

The Klausjagen finally ends with a procession of men blowing a simple 3-note pattern on cow horns (a ‘U’ in morse code, dot dot daaaaash). Most of the cow horns seemed to have some sort of double reed inside them, so they sounded more like huge party favors, and not so much like hunting horns.

Many of the participants refresh themselves between the two runnings of Chlaus, and after the second and final run, the party moves to the local gues houses.

The guys below had nothing to do with the parade, but were also part of the Christmas experience in Luzern, playing at the Christchindlimarkt in front of our hotel. Teutonic Christmas markets are a great tradition, with lots of handmade gifts, and lots of gluhwein, raclette, and heissi marroni.Luzern08-1291.jpg

Amish Country Kitsch

Wednesday, July 9th, 2008

Before I was old enough to drive, my dad and I used to ride our dirt bikes through Amish country to Charm. There used to be a little restaurant over there where you could sit at a counter and get a great piece of pie. Today, sleepy little Holmes County is filled with semi-trailers and tourists. The cafe that used to be so popular with the local Amish is now a tourist trap. The walls are covered with kitschy little fabric wall hangings with pictures of a very Nordic-looking Jesus. Offered for sale, along with musical clocks and postcards of Amish school children, the fabric hangings are sort of the Mennonite equivalent of paint me on velvet.

The food, which isn’t memorable, is offered in ‘Amish style’. From my point of view, that’s all to the best, because the Amish tend to cook like any other midwestern farmers, concentrating on chicken, mashed potatoes, overcooked green beans, and jellow. We were right next to the kitchen, and you could watch the waitresses mixing up the ‘homemade lemonade’ (no live citrus fruit was in sight).

Once you’ve lived in Europe for a while, there are certain things about America that strike you as being…special. Until you’ve been gone, you just don’t notice all the unique things that makes Americans great. One such hugely obvious characteristic is the amount of gravitas that so many people bring with them. Sure, there are people of substance everywhere in the world, but this part of the world seems to have a special ice age gene for energy storage, and apparently, large amounts of meat & potatoes are especially appealing to the large crowd at the restaurant. The waitress was polite, and didn’t comment on the fact that we didn’t clear our plates.

After eating our pie, we sat outside and watched horse & buggies dodging the sport utes.