4 August 2007

Our Big Trip

On Sunday 29 July Peter, Claire and I with panniers and rucksacks packed, helmets and gloves on, hopped on our bikes and rode off to the train station in Richmond to begin our first biking holiday here in England.

It was a first for us. We had initially planned to head out to the youth hostel in Alfriston (http://www.alfriston-village.co.uk/) by train and then use the buses and our feet to get around. A few weeks before we headed out, however, we got the notion to get bikes and the other gear we needed to do the trip riding our bikes. A visit to the national cycling organization told us that there were bike lanes and trails around where we'd be staying. We were all set.

As the day to leave approached, we were feeling very wary. The weather has been cool and rainy for over 6 weeks, and we worried that it would simply carry on, and we would spend our holiday wet and miserable. Thankfully, the day we left was the beginning of sunny and lovely days, real summer finally having come to England. A quick ride to the train station, and a hauling the bikes down the steps to the platform and we were on our way. We changed trains two times, and came to a small station in Berwick (said "bear-ick"), donned our helmets, gloves and safety vests and set off on the narrow country lane that led to Alfriston, about 3 miles away.

The hostel didn't open until 5:00 PM, so we had a little time for a visit to a restaurant for a pint and a bit of a snack before we settled in. There was Deans Place Hotel and Restaurant at the edge of Alfriston, just before we headed up the hill to the hostel, with a wide lawn on which people were playing croquet, and in we went. It's an old building, with ferns growing out of the roof.

Alfriston overall is best described as a medieval village, much of it built in the 14th and 15th centuries. It is surrounded by farmland: wheat fields, cattle and sheep. Tucked into a valley, you look up toward hillsides dotted with animals, or rich with grain ready for harvest. The air was clear and fresh.

We didn't realise that everything in the village closed down (other than the restaurants and pubs) at 5:00, so Peter rode the three miles south to Seaford to buy some wine for the evening. He came back covered in sweat and breathless. The three miles were down a steep hill and then back up a long slow climb before getting to the town. And of course, on the return, he glided down the long hill, and struggled up the 10% grade back to the hostel. As I said, he was sweaty and breathless.

Dinner at a pub was not our best choice of the day. It was a lovely old rickety building, and we sat in front of the former hearth of the inn, wide and still sooty from centuries use. Unfortunately, the kitchen was amazingly slow and we waited for over an hour for a salad nicoise with salmon, chicken breast with brie and bacon and an order of cheese garlic bread. It was a lucky thing that the food was very well prepared and delish.

Back to the hostel and to bed in our bunks. Claire on top and Peter and I across the room from each other on bottom bunks.

The next day we took to wander through the village and see what we could of the neighbouring countryside. Wandering through the village, we went into various shops, looking for postcards for family and friends, checking out a trendy cookware shop, another with a huge number of ceramic cats (much beloved by Claire), and browsing through a lovely bookstore (http://www.muchadobooks.com/). This last stop provided us with our itinerary for the day as the American born owners suggested a walk to the Berwick village church.

We stopped for tea at the Badgers Tea Shop and had scones and cream in the garden whilst writing our postcards.

Then we set out to the north, trying to remember the directions that the bookshop owners gave us. Just out of the village, we saw a sign for a public footpath through some woods. Up for an adventure, off we went into the shady and muddy path. After a bit we came to a fence that had steps to allow walkers over the top easily. Through a hay field, eventually there was another fence and a similar way over.

We walked along a road for a short way, and then found a path that lead us toward the church on the neighbouring hill. The way led us through a wheat field that had a narrow passage for walkers. Gentle hills rose on either side of us. The road was far enough away that the walk through the field was quiet, just the wind through the heads of ripe wheat. Oh, and Claire complaining about the wheat making her itchy and wondering when one of us would give in and carry her.

The church was nothing particularly special from the outside. Many of them look about the same. There is a mound just outside the church that dates from Saxon time, and inside the church there is a font that likely also came from the Saxons. Along the bottom of it, you can see grooves made by sharpening arrowheads. The side windows of the church were blasted out during the bombing in 1944, and they've been replaced by clear glass. Most remarkable, however, is a series of murals painted by members of a colony of artists who lived nearby after WW II. My pictures of them don't do them justice, so I won't include them here. Suffice to say that it's quite a lovely church (which can be just barely seen in the distance in the photo just above).

We wandered down the street a bit to find the single pub in Berwick where we sat in the lush garden and had a snack and a pint. Then we headed back into Alfriston where we visited the parish church and sat by the Tye (the green near the river) and read for a while.

On the way home we found another walking path by the river. The walking paths across the country are quite wonderful and unknown to us in the States. This one led through a few cow pastures with gates to get us in and out. On the gate posts, there were laminated notices that told us to keep dogs close or on a lead because it was calving season, and the cows can be easily provoked. It gave lengthy instructions for how to respond to cows in case they began to charge.

The river here is hardly more than what we'd call a stream most places, but it apparently was bit enough and deep enough 60 some years ago to have a mine float up the river to the town. Blessedly, it was found and disarmed before it exploded. Had it gone off in the town, there would likely be very little of the town left. The diffused bomb is now used as a collection point to help support the town.

Another night in the hostel, and we got up and going early to head out to Brighton, a resort town about 15 miles away. We had to catch an early bus, because the next that came by was 3 hours later. Discovering that the busses are relatively infrequent, we were glad that we'd decided to bring our bikes since it gave us some freedom of movement. For example, the busses to Berwick only run on certain days.

Brighton is a fun seaside town. We visited it twice when we were here last year. Claire especially loves a children's play area that has sand, playframes and a wading pool. There's also a historic pier with an amusement park at the end. As well, there are seeming miles of small, mostly pedestrian lanes that thread along up the hill away from the Channel. We browsed through shops for a bit before heading down to the water. The most interesting shop was one that focused on spirituality. What made it most interesting is that the owner really did cover most of the landscape. Bibles and menorahs were alongside Qu'rans and garrish Ganeshes. There were crystals and pagan stars, books about angels and numerology. It was really quite amazing.

We had a long and lovely day with Claire paddling in the pool, window shopping, and the pier, and headed back on the train. We shopped for food in Polegate (a town big enough to have a decent market right across from the train station), and headed home.

Cooking dinner for ourselves in the self catering kitchen in the hostel was great. We got a chance to chat with folks from other areas of England, Germany, Italy, France, Australia, and even America. Hostels, it seems, are increasingly the way that families manage to travel here where accomodations can cost £100 a night for just the three of us. By our last night, we'd become friendly with an family with 4 daughters aged 8 to 14, and Claire played with the girls happily for several hours while we learned more about England from their parents.

Wednesday was all about Claire. We biked up to Drusilla's Zoo and Park, a well thought out full day of adventure and fun. There's a small well designed zoo with a path that carries you past all the animal exhibits. There's a farm section, pets exhibit, meerkats, prairie dogs, penguins, otters and plenty of other animals. Once you're through the zoo, there's a large play area with fun and interesting play frames and other climbing toys. A bit further along, there's an inflatable slide, a place to "pan for gold", a sandy area where you can dig for dino bones, miniature golf and an inflatable bouncer, along with a wading pool. They also have the occasional kid's celebrity, and the day we were there it was the "Tweenies", characters from CeeBeeBees, the BBC kid's channel. While it wasn't the top fun for Peter and me, he and I got some good time to talk. Peter attempted to go to the English Wine Centre next door for a tasting, but for reasons we couldn't discern, they turned him away.

I left earlier than Peter and Claire and went into Alfriston to an ice cream and fine food shop that had luscious looking frozen fish cakes. I bought a few, along with some frozen Irish mussels, and then picked up some veg over at the other little market in the village and headed home. We feasted that night!

Thursday was our last day, and we headed out on our bikes anticipating a long ride through the countryside. It was overcast and cool, but still perfectly lovely. We rode south along a country lane (not wide enough for two cars to pass comfortably), until we came to the Seven Sisters County Park. Misreading the map in the forest section of the park, we set out on what was described as a family friendly bike path. It took us through the woods, and wound around from here to there. We kept thinking that we'd shortly find the Channel and the white chalk cliffs. Riding up a steep hill, speeding down the other side, we found ourselves on a road that led into the country lane that we'd been on an hour before.

After we found the visitor's centre, we saw the easy paved path out to the beach. An easy ride with a strong breeze off the Channel in our faces, and we were out on a pebbly beach, with cliffs rising above us. It was time for lunch, so we wandered down along the cliffs and spread out our towels and ate with the waves crashing in nearby.

Peter and Claire played in the rocks and around the cliffs whilst I read for a while. Looking out and seeing that the tide was coming in fast, and it was getting colder, we packed up and headed back to the bikes, and then back into Alfriston to read by the Tye again, do a little shopping for dinner, and head back to the hostel.

We finished up our leftovers, and then sat in the garden for a long evening of conversation and wild playing children. We slept well on our last night, rose early, packed up, ate breakfast, and rode to Berwick to catch a train to Clapham Junction, and then one home to Richmond.

We were home by just past noon, which afforded plenty of time to shop and get most of our laundry done before dark (a critical thing as we hang clothes in the back garden to dry).

Though both Peter and I are aware that we need to build up our endurance and aerobic capacity again (neither of us have been exercising enough since we moved), we were glad to have this small biking holiday and are looking at other possibilities for biking next summer. We even thought about riding the length of Hadrian's Wall (150 miles for those of you who don't know such things). We'll see.

The best thing about all this is that we would never have thought of doing such a thing in the States. Tied as we were to our car, it might have occurred to us to bike somewhere, but it was unlikely that we'd actually do it. Living here is giving us all sorts of new opportunities. It's good.
(We've uploaded other pictures from our holiday here: http://picasaweb.google.com/pdteets/2007Holiday?authkey=qRn2mTFkpnY)

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