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Craig's Musings

The Glorious Englishness of Sunny Hampshire

With the British weather getting into the full swing of global warming uncertainty, this second week of October saw a gloriously warm and sunny day visit us in North Hampshire.

Obviously, this meant I had to make the most of the warm weather, removing both sleeves and trouser legs, for a 60km ride around Hampshire.

Now, I’ve had two epiphanies recently with my cycling. Firstly, I thought it was time to get used to metric rather than miles. It’s what all proper cyclists do. Although I wouldn’t exactly class myself as the working man’s Chris Froome, I will be spending around 166,465 metres cycling in Europe next year, so I thought it was about time I got used to kilometres.

That’s just the horizontal distance by the way; I am trying not to think about the 14,319 metres of climbing, which is approximately 1.6 Everests, 10 Ben Nevis’s or 169 Farleigh Hills (one for the Basingstoke cyclists).

I’ve now had a couple of rides with kilometres as my guiding light, and seem to spend most of my time on the saddle trying to convert every kilometre measurement to miles in my head with the “divide by eight, multiply by five” calculation my mum taught me as a child driving through Europe. It’s actually a multiple of 1.60934 from kilometres to miles, to be precise, but what’s one mile out over a 100-mile distance between friends? Unless that friend is Carol Vorderman, of course.

My second realisation, following my reading of the wonderful One Man and His Bike, by Mike Carter, is that I need to take more in as I cycle. I need to get my head up and look around. It’s one of the things I love about the touring bike. I’m not in so much of a rush. On the road bike, I found myself chasing segments on Strava, attacking hills, and trying to beat my previous attempts, which of itself seems silly when I’m not getting any younger, and I currently weigh in at 118kg. Yep, metric on that as well, but no easy formula that I care for, so far to translate it!

In 2016, I peddled under my own steam from John O’Groats to Basingstoke to Land’s End. Just shy of 1,000 miles, or 1,609km in new money (that one was easy), over ten days of cycling. I spent so much of that trip with my head down, just wanting to reach the end of each day. As a result, I missed so many amazing sights through this wonderful country of ours, just to get to the end of every gruelling day that little bit quicker. What a fucking waste.

With the touring bike, it’s not about how quickly you get there, just that you get there, which means I can lift my head up, I can stop, and I can look around, which I did on Monday with a 60km loop south of Alton. The warm October sunshine making everything seem brighter, giving me a reminder of the pure Englishness of the roads, towns and villages on my doorstep.

From my home in Old Basing, I took a brief white-knuckle ride on the A30 by The Hatch pub, before heading South East on the Greywell Road. I cycle this road a lot, usually the other way, with my head down counting away the last miles before home the nice warm bath that beckons. I know, for instance, that it’s exactly one mile from Mapledurwell Village hall to my home. Another calculation to while away the miles and take my mind off the rigid effort of my legs pumping away on the peddles.

I was heading first for the beautiful village of Greywell, lined on one side as it is with a constant row of pretty Grade II listed cottages that would have day-tripping Americans photographing wildly, with “Gee” and “Oh my God, it’s like Disney” floating through the quiet Hampshire countryside every couple of seconds, right before they’d get bored and ask where the gift shop was, or the closest McDonalds.

But, before then, it was just the small matter of my first hill to conquer as I cycled past St. Stephen’s Church in Up Nately, the George Cross billowing proudly, reminding me of where I was, just in case I missed the nearby patchwork quilt of this green and pleasant land divided by meandering hedgerows and crop fields.

Every time I see the Up Nately village sign I smile, reminded of a Cub Scout Camp there back in 1980, and being driven to the local farmer’s field on a wet Friday evening by one of the parents. Eight of us scrunched into a steamy and smokey Ford Cortina, as was the way back then, before “clunk-click every trip” and when Jimmy Saville was still just a slightly weird bloke on TV. As we entered the village, one of my fellow cubs on the back seat poked his head through the armpit of the next boy, and piped up, “Up Nately. Up Nately’s What?”. Being away from my parents, on what was effectively a stag weekend for ten years olds, I was in stitches. More for the fact that the stuffy dad driving did not look amused, tutting and shaking his head slowly as he finished the latest cigarette in his chain smoking marathon, a feat he seemed to manage with only two or three drags for each one.

Through Greywell, to the relative bustle of Odiham, a place where old people driving don’t seem to think bikes exist as they cross the high street in front of you, with no warning or indicators, to nab a parking space, as I’m left wobbling to and fro to avoid them; them oblivious as they seemingly stare into the distance as they drive, to a point approximately a mile ahead of where they are going (1.609 km, if we’re gonna keep aiming for metric).

Then a right turn south, half way through the village, towards the back of Odiham RAF base, safe in the knowledge that Mrs Rude-Bastard (they all have double-barrelled names around there) got to the pharmacy two minutes faster than she needed to.

Up through Well and back down to Lower Froyle through stoney lanes, I crossed under the A31 and past the Islington Mill and Oast House on the edge of the River Wey, a waterway that once boasted more water mills per mile than anywhere else in Britain. I really could be back in the 1800’s around here, apart from the sound of the nearby dual carriageway and the constant beeping of my bike computer every time I approached a junction.

Heading up towards Binstead, looking to my right, I had to remind myself out loud to stop and take in the beautiful view north across the valley. Besides, I needed a wee.

It’s at times like this that I lose my bearings as I try to take in the stunning vista of North Hampshire. I know I’m near Alton, but not really sure where it is, having cycled around 21km (rounded down to 20 because it’s much easier to calculate as 12.5 miles). Never mind, my new Garmin would tell me.

And, if I’d pressed the right button, it may well have, but I managed to press the wrong button, reset it and lost my ride tracking. You know what they say, if it’s not on Strava, did it really happen? My sore bottom, numb ball bag and my tight legs said yes, but I’m not going to lead with those, just to prove a point.

On through Binstead and Wyck, crossing the B3004 past The Three Horseshoes on the junction. Every time I see this pub, I think I must go there for a drink. I never do; but please don’t pin all the woes of the pub industry on me. Then west onto a one-lane country road, which seemed to be a mecca for spider’s webs from hedge to hedge right across the road. I assume the spiders here are very good at leaping? Or, I guess it might just be windy. One after another they came. I found this out the hard way as I rolled into one, mouth open, mid yawn, slicing through it like a pair of giant scissors at the opening of a new village hall before spluttering and spitting into the next one. Then the next. Then the next.

Upper Farringdon beckoned. Another English village whose quaint beauty demanded I stop to take yet another photo of the local church, All Saints, on what was fast becoming a homage to the beauty of Hampshire village churches and the wonderment of how much money the Church Of England must have to keep them all going.

A quick drink of water and then back on Terence as I pushed the peddles up to speed and rounded the first corner, only to be greeted by Massey’s Folly, an imposing structure which looked completely out of place, as if someone had built a full-size house in the middle of a LegoLand skyline. If I’m going to start lifting my head up and looking at stuff, I had to get used to more stop-starty action. So I stopped and gazed.

Massey’s Folly was built by Thomas Hacket Massey, a rector in Farringdon during the 1800s. This folly, fully embraced its folly-ness as a “costly ornamental building with no practical purpose”, as Massey went about building the whole building with just one bricklayer, one carpenter and one labourer. Unsurprisingly, he didn’t actually get round to finishing it before he died.

Upper Farringdon gently flowed into Lower Farringdon, and I was suddenly on familiar territory. It didn’t take me long to remember I was just about to hit a long drag up towards Four Marks. 2.3 km worth of drag, which would need a calculator to work out and I didn’t have one on my bike, so I opted for a very rough guess of 1½ miles and slipped Terence into one of his lower gears, trundling up the road wondering what a Pet Hotel was as I passed one. It seems the cost of living crisis has yet to hit the travel plans of the dog population, listening to the amount of barking.

The lane was just about wide enough for a car to squeeze past me tightly on the hill, which quite a few did, some drivers slowing down only the smallest amount they deemed necessary, safely encased within their cocoons of steel. My bum cheeks needed squeezing even tighter, as I tried to avoid the seam of the road as it turned to dust and hedge, wing mirrors passing my elbow with inches to spare.

From Four Marks, back up into Medstead and another church stop at St. Andrew’s. From here took a right towards Lasham, crossing down through the fast descent from Bentworth and across the A339, before heading back up the other side into the village, another long drag that demanded a stop, once again, for another church photograph. It was a good excuse for a breather, if nothing else.

I was now about 16km from home (another round number as luck would have it, 10 miles) but decided I deserved a coffee and some cake at the nearby Avenue Nurseries Garden Centre. Garden centres fascinate me at the best of times, but coming here for a cake stop seemed to amplify my fascination with these popular middle-class outposts, more about non-garden related tat and cafeterias than actually growing stuff anymore. And here was I making a pit stop  for food with no intension of riding the rest of the way home with a tray of bedding plants strapped to my pannier.

You get a certain type of person in a garden centre. Another group not necessarily feeling the pinch of true austerity, walking out pushing trolleys full of Bird Tables, Puzzles and Artisan Bread. I must be doing okay then, I thought, as splashed out £8 on a tepid coffee and a slice of Victoria Sponge.

The warm sun demanded that I sit in the café garden. So I paid, took hold of my metal rod with the number 48 clipped into the top, and found a suitable table to listen in on the conversations of the people around me to see what the “word on the street” was with the retirement community of middle England.

I sat down gingerly, my wooden legs trying their best not to bend, placing down my numbered stand, making sure to twist the 48 face on towards the café door as instructed by the cheap laminated sign. I can only assume this had been introduced after a short-tempered member of staff, probably called Sandra or Linda, had come back into the kitchen one too many times saying, “I can’t bloody find number 17 anywhere for this pot of tea and Lemon Drizzle.”

Despite the fact that I am, indeed, writing this, you couldn’t make up what some people talk about in public eateries as they relax and my ears soon pricked up like my neighbours cat padding across my garden when I open the back door. I can only assume writers like Alan Bennett and Peter Kaye just go to public spaces like this to get their best material. Although, you have to have good hearing. It can get a little difficult having to interrupt someone, pen and pad in hand, and saying, “Sorry, you couldn’t just repeat that last bit, could you? Just after where you said his mother could fart for England.”

One such couple were sharing a Coronation Chicken Sandwich and pot of tea. Perhaps this was their own little bit of austerity taking place. As the wife sifted through the track list for their upcoming village Christmas concert on her phone, the husband quietly sang a line from each song as she announced the title, all apart from the Cliff Richard track, because, “Oh no, we’re not doing that one are we?”. She ignored his hopeful face each time, looking for her approval like a puppy, as she carried on like she was reading through a shopping list. 

An elderly couple to the other side of me were planning an exciting day for tomorrow. “So, if we get the bus into Basingstoke, we can make a day of it. We need new pillow cases, not the actual pillow case covers, mind, the inner protective covers, what are they called again? I think Markses should have them but the last ones were from Dunelm, I think, which is out of town. Yes, I’m sure they’ll have them in Markses. Perhaps we can treat ourselves to a KFC while we’re there, or a pie from Greggs?”. Please take a breath, I kept thinking, but it made me proud to be English listening to these stories, as the husband just nodded dutifully along, trying to eat his Millionaire’s Shortbread with a knife and fork.

I didn’t stay long. I knew I was nearly home with less than an hour of cycling to go and a long stretch of downhill to come, rolling 4km (2½ miles) from Herriard, all the way down to Upton Grey. A sharp left up the hill, but I already knew I was going to stop half way up under the guise of completing my Killick’s Church Tour October 2023 with a shot of St Mary’s, and it was just the run back through Tunworth and back home to Old Basing – a cycle I’ve done a hundred times before, but somehow lighter with the release of any expectation on speed.

In the past, when cycling in France, I’ve always been enamoured with the sing-song “Bonjour” you get from other cyclists on the road. Perhaps in the UK, we’re far too busy clinging on for dear life avoiding pot holes and angry drivers to realise we should be enjoying our self-propelled journeys on two wheels. Perhaps, “helloooo” is not very singable?

But taking the pressure of time away from a cycle ride, and enjoying the journey (not the destination) makes all the difference. People are fascinating. And the views that Hampshire offers when you choose to look truly are glorious, especially on a sunny October day.

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