The Grand Tour: Fife and Beyond

Ramblings of an inveterate cyclist

Bullfrog

I have three bikes called Bullfrog,

Bullfrog, one, two and three,

Why do I call them Bullfrog,

They are all old crocks like me.

This was written when I was living down in Yorkshire so a while ago. I had just recently turned 65 and had all sorts of plans for myself, no longer a white slave from Monday through to Friday. Mum had other plans for me she suffered a stroke, not deliberately I’m sure, but it did put pay to my plans. Life got in my way. I became, by default, my mother’s carer.

(although a thankless task most of the time and very tiring all of the time, and financially unrewarding, I never regretted it for one moment, it was all quality time spent with my mother).

Mum had gone into rest care so I could go off for a wee holiday, just get away from the seven-day routine. Alas, the position of mum’s carer, also made me custodian of mum’s little Yorkshire terrier, Tim. Like Mary’s little lamb, everywhere that Walter went, Tim was sure to go. With Youth Hostelling now ruled out, it would be a camping trip. I had bought a ‘new to me’ children’s bike trailer for Tim to travel in, but Tim was having none of it. I then purchased a basket, this was fixed to the rear carrier, allowing Tim to ride up at my back. Tim was in his glory, sitting high in his own little castle, anytime I left him to guard the bike and trail, (now a depository for all our goods and chattels), outside shop or visitor center Tim was quick to exploit the situation, and went into, busking for attention mode, from passers-by.

Since much of the route I had chosen would involve off-road and since I would be pulling a two-wheeled trailer loaded with all our camping equipment, and Tim’s chunky meaty bites, I chose my off-road bike. Tim and I journeyed overnight down to Thame, which is just east of Oxford, and found a safe spot to leave the van (a van converted so able to take mum’s electric buggy) ideal for all our needs. I later found out that the cul-de-sac I had chosen to park in was opposite the home of a member of the Bee-Gees, for all my younger readers, the Bee-gees was band big in the 1960s.

The melodic bell in the church tower had just chimed seven o’clock as we set out to stretch our legs after the long journey south. Tim introduced himself to a little Jack Russell and then to the dog’s owner, who then introduced himself as Tom. Tom, like his dog, turned out to be ever so friendly, he offered to show me where I could join the disused railway track at the start of our cycling adventure. As we walked Tom kept up a running commentary on the village and from his enthusiasm clearly a village he dearly loved. History oozed from every building from its church, barn, and a pub, named ‘The Bird Cage’, a timber-framed construction in the towns Corn Market. I was told it derived its name from having once been used to house French prisoners of war during Napoleonic times.

Finally, we arrived at the cycle track, Thames best-kept secret since it is found by making one’s way through a modern housing estate on the outskirts of the village, out of sight and with no guiding signs.

Back at the van the trailer was loaded and attached to the bike then off we went on our ‘Big’ adventure a round trip that would take us through some of the most beautiful countrysides in Oxfordshire.

By midday, we had travelled via Princes Risborough, Owlswich, Kemblewick, Marsh Mill, and on to Ellesbourch. It was here on the steps leading up to the church, as we sat eating ham sandwiches, or more correctly, I was eating bread, Tim was scoffing the ham from my sandwiches. When we were approached by a lady delivering the parish newsletter, Tim has that magnetic charm. In answer to my inquiry about a distinctive hill, not too far off, I was told it was Beacon Hill, overlooking Chequers.

Tim’s eagerness to go when I lifted his lead soon turned into disillusionment after half an hour of climbing in grass a little long for his liking. However, the view from the top was magnificent since we were now able to see for miles in every direction and certainly well worth the effort to get up here.

Shortly after we had settled down a Land Rover came out of nowhere, From the passenger side, a large military-type dropped onto the ground, with effortless ease, and made his way towards us. He was dressed in a blue military boiler-suit. suspended across his chest by a broad strap, he carried a small compact gun, it was so stubby it could have been a toy, however, I had no illusions that it was real. Already I knew his name “SIR”. He only stayed long enough to give us the once over, no long lens cameras, no ban the bomb flags, no high explosives cunningly disguised as a Yorkshire terrier. Strangely what I remember most about him was the size of his boots. The Song from G.I. Blues “They call your daddy, big boots” annoyingly stayed in my head for the remainder of that day.

Just north of the little village of Tring, we turned off on a path that would lead us onto the Grand Union Canal towpath. On reaching the canal we found it a little short on ‘Grand’, more an overgrown ditch. The water was shallow and crystal clear with small islands of vegetation scattered at random along its length. The banks were covered with self-seeded hardwood already in autumn profusion. The towpath, that we would now follow was deep in fallen leaves that dappled sunlight played upon. There was an abundance of water hens that scurried into their moat surrounded fortresses as we approached. The chunky shoulders of our tyres caused the dry leaves to spin up and dance unrehearsed alongside our wheels in an exhilarating manner, then billow in a kaleidoscope of streaming colour in our wake. One small boy, his faithful dog, and a bicycle all setting out on a great adventure, it does not get much better than this.

We joined the Grand Union Canal proper at Bulbourne where we stopped for refreshment. Tim had a large bowl of water me a large pint of keg beer. The next part of the journey down the canal towpath was uninspiring when you’ve seen one canal you have seen them all, so when we reach Uxbridge, I had already made up my mind to throw caution to the wind and take to the minor roads.

As we pulled into camp that night, fellow campers must have thought they had sighted the Grey Man of Ben MacDui. The limestone hardcore, which made up the path on which we had spent the day travelling had left us covered from head to toe in fine white dust. My first task, after establishing the camp was to head for the toilet and shower room. Picking up a towel and soap bag from the back of the trailer sent Tim hot-footing it into the tent, where he hid inside my sleeping bag. Like all small boys, he has an allergy to soap and water. I had most everything I owned tumbling and spinning in the washing machine so it was now time to set about washing down the bike and trailer at the same time checking them over for any signs of breakage of problem tyres.

I whiled away the evening, sitting with only the light of the campsite to see by, eating supper and downing numerous cups of tea. As darkness descended, the campsite fell silent, all that could be heard was the sounds from the nearby town floating towards us on a gentle breeze. Tim, had contented himself, he was curled up on my sleeping bag, one eye open less I go off without him. It had been a long day, so all that was left for us to do, was both curl up, me in my sleeping bag, Tim alongside me, as snug as two bugs in a rug, we slept the sleep of the God’s.

By daybreak we were packed and ready for the road, in Slough I found a greasy spoon cafe and sat down to a full breakfast, the first for some days and certainly a tribute to ‘hunger’s good kitchen’. From Slough to Windsor Great Park then into Windsor itself where the Tourist Information gave us directions to a campsite. It was early yet but we were in no hurry so booked in, did the chores, then off we headed for the town and a few pints, just to clear the dust from one’s throat, you understand.

By sun-up we were once more on our road, heading this time for Wantage, in the vale of the White Horse, for a land that is so flat all around, the road down the valley to the hill on which you find this incredible sculpture is anything but.

We parked the bike and started the long climb up to the hill fort, once again well worth the effort. It was dark O’clock by the time we reached our campsite at West End near Stanton Harcourt.

We took time out to explore Stanton Harcourt next day. Batteries recharged we were off into Oxford, not a dog-friendly town, no dogs allowed signs at ever park and riverbank. In fact, the only dogs I saw belonged to the Big Issue vendor.

All too soon the sands of time had run out on our holiday, so back we peddled into Thame and our transport home. It had been a great trip, the weather warm, sunny, and windless. We had only two punctures, both in the trailer, which had no puncture protection in the tyres. The first was on the Grand Union Canal. With the new tube fitted and the tyre reinstated I was searching in the trailer for a pump. When we set out everything in the trailer had its place and a place for everything, now it resembled a midshipman’s sea kist, everything on top, and nothing to hand. Just then a chap pulled up on his bike, it had two large panniers front and rear. The halo effect said cycle tourist but as it turned out he worked at a cafe in the nearby park and presumably his panniers were full of goodies for the cafe. Anyway, he whipped the pump from his bike and started attacking the wheel before I had a chance to retrieve ours. Off he went again, at a great rate of knots, with my thanks ringing in his ears. The hand drying machine at the campsite was used to help in the repair of the tube which would be required the following day. Once back on the roads however no further problems were encountered.

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