So yesterday the day arrived when we leave Europe after 133 days and head for the UK. Despite the fact that we still have some time left exploring the South of England, the adventure is drawing to a close.
I think this brings some mixed emotions; sadness that it is all coming to an end, excitement about the final stage in the UK and also looking forward to returning home again. High on the Stoker’s agenda is sleeping in our own bed!
In truth, we are both comfortable with our schedule for returning home; after a jaunt around the South Coast for a couple of weeks, it feels like it will be the right time.
There will be plenty of time for proper reflection, but we have done a huge amount since early May. The trip has been made up of a number of district phases each being slightly different. We even had one phase without the bike! Travelling the South Coast of England will be the last phase of an incredible journey.
Our final couple of days at the Camp site in Garriguella were spent mooching around on Claud.
We went to a local wine making cooperative and ask about a possible tour. Not only was this not possible apparently but we are told we have to phone someone to check availability. We were disappointed to be fobbed off in this way, so head for the winery opposite.
At the ‘Mas Luna’ winery the story could not be more different. Although we are the only people there, the very friendly lady offers to show us around. She takes us on our own private tour, explains the wine making process and takes us down the cellar. We then have a tasting session.
We find out that they do bigger tours out into the vineyards and even one to the site of an old military airfield in the area, which has been reclaimed for vine growing. We don’t have enough time to catch either of these, which is a pity, particularly as the airfield trip also includes visiting the massive military bunker on the site.
Whilst chatting, we find out the reason for the military bunkers we passed on the way back from Figueres a day earlier. 10,000 were constructed in this area by Franco after the Spanish Civil War to protect the border from attacks by either Germany or France.
Thursday sees our last day at the ‘Camping du Calamitie ‘ and we clear up the chalet before embarking on the c 15k ride to Roses.
The ride to Roses is a straightforward route on a road, which has a space for cyclists beyond a white line at the side. These are helpful for keeping out if the way of the traffic, but you do have to be careful as there is often debris, particularly glass, which you need try to avoid. They can also be a bit dodgy when you approach a right turn, particularly when some idiot decides to cut you up.
The ride has a bit of a grinding climb, but we quickly find ourselves in Roses. Although I have been here before, this was fully some 30 years ago and the place is barely recognisable from those days. It is much larger for a start and we are both surprised at how busy it is compared to the other places we have been to in this area over the last few weeks.
We have chosen the hotel Marian as it is the location that the bus picks us up on Saturday morning. The hotel caters for cyclists and we are informed there are 30 staying there. Claud gets his own cage. We meet a party of about 10 who have come from the UK on the bus and will leave with us on Saturday morning.
Our time in Roses is spent doing the sort of things you do in a resort, lunch, swim and stroll into town along the sea front. We take a couple of short rides to local beaches for a swim, but no more than that.
We also manage a bit of planning for the next few days. As we are likely to be knackered when we get turfed off the bus in Dover on Sunday morning, we settle for a short ride to Folkestone. Although we have no maps as yet, the Sustrans National Cycle Route 2 starts about 300 yards from where we get dropped off. This runs all the way to the West county and we hope to follow it to Portsmouth and then possibly on to Southampton and Poole, depending on where we get the boat home from.
We estimate it will take us 4-5 days to get to Portsmouth. We will stay there a few days and decide how best to get home from there.
So Saturday arrives and our trip to the UK on the ‘Euro-bike-express’ bus. As the name suggests, this is a bus service especially for bikes and travels the length of the UK all the way down to Roses and back again on a weekly schedule during the summer. The bikes fit in a large trailer at the back.
We have to turn the handlebars 90 degrees in advance, but apart from that, there is little other preparation required.
The bus arrives at the appointed hour for the 20 hour journey to Dover. There are only a few to get off so the orderly process of loading on the bikes begins quickly. There are a number of vertical racks for the road bikes and some stand up racks on a second level of the trailer.
Claud needs to be manhandled onto the second level and gets safely strapped in, the only casualty being the flag pole, which gets a bit bent on the process. Not really a problem; we had to ditch the original flag pole in Budapest and had since improvised by using an extending fly swatter that we bought in L’Estartit (we took the swatty bit off obv.).
The rest of the bikes get loaded on in a manner that appears to be a bit heavy handed. I wince when someone’s rear mech bangs on the side of the trailer as it is being loaded; I am so glad it was not my Pinarello!
All loaded on and we pile on the coach and get well looked after by the guys on board. The coach stops in a number of places to pick people up and, despite being somewhat dated, has decent facilities; reclining seats, air con, food service, toilet etc. The main downside is that it does not have WiFi, so bang goes my chances of listening to the City game.
The guys running the bus do a good job and periodically we stop to load on a few more cyclists and their bikes. Some of the pickup stops are in industrial estate-type places and at very early hours in the morning; not something either of us would fancy.
Speaking to people on the bus, there are some long journeys home. One guy is going to the North East and will then climb in in his car and drive to Scotland. Someone else is getting off with us to Dover and like us cycling to Folkestone; they are then catching a train to London, crossing London, catching a train to Oxford and then cycling home. This is hard core stuff, but we wonder whether there are simpler ways to travel with your bike, perhaps not.
We eat the microwaved meal we have ordered, which is OK under the circumstances, and settle down for some sleep. Remarkably we sleep for a good few hours, although as always sleep is constantly broken by stops or just the movement of the coach.
Earlier today as we get close to Calais, the impact of France’s heightened security level and the migrant crisis becomes apparent. First, there is a massive double fence adorned with barbed wire which seems to run for miles along the road to the port. Second, when we get to the port, troops with machine guns are evident everywhere; a clear sign of the times.
After clearing passport control we are on the ferry for the c 1.5 hour journey to Dover. England is our 12th country, though it feels a bit like cheating to count it; but we are going to anyway.
We both feel fresher than we thought, but are still glad we elected for a short ride to Folkestone today. We are sure to be very tired mid-afternoon.
We get deposited in the dockside at Dover with two other riders; some bloke and an older lady who, it turns out, is the person who needs to get to Oxford. The bloke tells us the National Cycle Route 2 to Folkestone is ‘Rolling’ with some ‘rough tracks across the Downs’.
We put Claud back together and leave together with the older lady as we are heading in the same direction.
Our initial experience of the National Cycle Route 2 I think sums up all that is wrong with the British attitude to cyclists. We have seen countries that have put cyclists at the heart of transport planning and some who have made cyclists first priority in this regard. Clearly the UK, like Jersey, has still to promote cyclists from being forth or fifth class citizens.
First, the route out of Dover, though a dedicated cycle path has been obstructed, first by building works and then later by road works. The road works don’t really affect the cycle lane, it is just that the Authority has decided to put all the road signs in the lane, making it impassable. We have to push the majority of the way out of Dover.
Second, the cycle path which crosses the downs is of an extremely poor quality, Tarmac stretches that are badly damaged and some very poor rough stone stretches. Some of it is awful; we had to stop and get off countless times.
You cannot blame Sustrans (the organisation trying to develop a cycle network), it relies on volunteers and is almost certainly given virtually zero funds. It is the culture it is working within; on this evidence, the U.K. has a lot to learn from the likes of Belgium, Germany and even Hungary.
The poor lady we are cycling with has to push most of the way. She must be in her 70s so we wait for her a few times, but in the end have to leave her behind. Chapeau to her though, she is making a long journey on her own having spent a week cycling in Spain.
We get some respite at the Battle of Britain memorial just outside Folkestone. We stop and have a wander around the site of some former coastal guns to take in the enormous contribution of the 3,000 ‘few’ to WWII. A couple of big planes keep me amused.
Final comedy on the route to Folkestone/ Sandgate is that we have to share the path with a local half marathon coming the other way. It was like swimming against the tide.
We get to the Ship Inn, knackered for a beer, the papers and a Sunday roast. We will rest up here today and then decide on the next steps tomorrow.
A map of any sort would be handy…..