Following Route 45, part of the National Cycle Network in the UK, Kyle and I make our way from Ironbridge, to Bridgnorth, to Kidderminster, to Worcester, and finally, to our train out of Cheltenham. While stretches of the route are very nice indeed – paved paths alongside the scenic Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal, lined with beautifully handcrafted narrowboats and intermittent tunnels and locks – other parts torment us with boggy, bumpy, and narrow bridlepaths covered in thorns. Occasionally, we encounter riders on horseback and have no choice but to yield, standing off into the brush with our bikes, hoping the thorns aren’t doing us too much damage or that we won’t break out in a rash due to some unknown poisonous plant.
Behind in our journey, we book a train from Cheltenham just outside of Gloucester, cycling an extra 25 miles in one day because striking workers have put the train out of commission in Worcester. Rolling into Cheltenham at dusk, hungry and tired after 60 miles of pedaling, we eat Indian food in a park we had planned on camping in, only to discover it is right next to a big university and quite busy with visitors, even after 10 PM. In the dark we search for a new hideout, finally settling into a different park in a quieter part of town. Early the next morning, park workers were out and about – we are certain they will come over and ask us to pack up, but they never do. We book it anyway, hanging out at a nice coffeeshop across the street from the train station before it is time for us to leave.
Arriving in Bristol, we are met with a blue sky and bright sun – and Sophie & Fergus, our Warm Showers hosts. Sipping tea outside of a small café in the Temple Mead area of Bristol near the water, Fergus and Sophie share a little bit more about themselves. Sophie is currently studying to be a social worker while Fergus is a freelance photographer. Touring cyclists themselves, they completed “Bristanbul” just last year, cycling from Bristol in the UK to Istanbul, Turkey. In another couple weeks they plan to tour across America, flying into New York City and then taking a train down to New Orleans. From there, they plan to visit relatives in Nashville and then take the TransAmerica cycle route to California, ending in San Francisco. It is the perfect time for us to meet – Kyle and I are able to impart knowledge concerning their chosen route across the States and they are able to provide some ideas and direction for our route to Eastern Europe (and a blog link).
Sophie goes into the café to work her shift; she is saving money for their three month trip to the USA. A wedding is taking place, so it is unlikely we will see her again anytime soon. Fergus leads us back to their place in Easton, right off a wonderful paved railway path from Bristol to Bath. Easton is a diverse, multicultural neighborhood, once looked down on as a little shady, but now quite an interesting place to be. Entering into their home, still somewhat of a work-in-progress in places, Kyle and I encounter a collection of bicycles, perhaps 10-12, to which we now add our two touring bikes. A brand new lime green Surly CrossCheck leans up against the wall in the entryway (Sophie’s). Fergus gives us a tour of the house, showing us our fold out futon and offering to let us use the washer in the basement (Ding! Ding! Ding!). Throwing our rather sour and mildewy smelling clothes in the wash, Kyle and I wolf down a couple of sandwiches, meet a couple of housemates, hang clothes to dry on a line outside, and then follow Fergus to the train station on the corner where we hop on just in time with our bikes for a ride up to Clifton so that we can go for a nice and easy bike ride downhill through the city.
Somehow we get away with a free train ride (Fergus explains that they don’t collect tickets between these two stations).
Hopping off less than five minutes later, we cycle around beautiful neighborhoods decorated with Georgian and Victorian-style buildings, stopping for a moment at a pub sporting the strongest cider in Bristol at something around 9% alcohol. We don’t go in though, because Fergus has a better treat for us – The White Lion Bar and Terrace, a pub with a magnificent view over the city and the iconic Clifton Suspension Bridge, framed by the cliffs of the Avon Gorge. It is a truly breathtaking spot to be having a drink with a new friend, and we even meet a few Americans from New York that say hello after overhearing us describe our state to Fergus. Downing the rest of our drinks, we next bike across the bridge to Ashton Court Park, a park that gives you the feeling you’ve just left the city for the countryside, even boasting a network of mountain biking trails. Zooming past slow-moving pedestrians, we zip past the mansion the park is named after, and approach a young man blasting Reggae out of a huge speaker outside a bike shop. Fergus had raved about this guy in advance of the tour, now introducing himself and taking some pictures.
We push on, about to cycle past an interesting building called The Create Centre (which was consequently right next to the city council) when a woman calls out to us, inviting us in for “high tea” and an exhibit on soil. In honor of Bristol’s designation as the European Green Capital of 2015 and the UN International Year of Soils, The Soil Sisters and Touchstone Collaborations, working alongside The Blue Finger Alliance, have been facilitating Soil Saturdays throughout July leading to a Declaration for Soil by the people of Bristol, meant to guide future soil policy making. While we don’t stay long, we do take a peek at some of the projects taking place across the UK as well as some soil maps, sampling yummy gluten free food.
Anxious to grab another drink at a favorite art gallery down by the water, Fergus leads us down to Bristol Harbour where people seem to be partying in pockets all over the place. The big act for the day, the Southern American BBQ Festival, fills the marina with familiar smells and music while randomly positioned Shaun the Sheep statues add quirky color and fun. Kayak and crew races occur on one side, bringing on cheers from the crowds. People and noise are everywhere, out to enjoy the sunshine on a beautiful Saturday evening in Bristol. We bike to an art gallery, briefly taking in an exhibit meant to capture the process of creation before grabbing another round of drinks to take outside next to the harbor.
Once back at Fergus and Sophie’s, Kyle and I take down our clothes, dried quite rapidly in the sun, and walk to a local Indian food place highly recommended by Fergus. Upon our return, Fergus pulls out all of his maps from his and Sophie’s trip across Europe, convincing us that we need to cycle the River Danube, Europe’s longest river, from Passau to Vienna to Budapest. Tired from a wonderful day, we crash on the pull out. The next morning, we wait as long as we can, both for the rain to stop and Sophie to wake up (she got home at dawn), then wave to our fellow adventurers as we cycle out into the mist.