Monday, August 14, 2017

Tips for touring in England

Much like the Alps, England is a country of unpredictable weather. The weather forecasts were remarkably unreliable, with constant predictions of rain that never panned out, and on "dry forecast" days, you could still get occasional sprinkles. This makes England ideal for my "no-reservations" style of cycle touring, where each day's routes and roads are planned on a moment-to-moment's notice as weather dictates.

What makes England different from the Alps is that it's much more populated, with very many enthusiastic AirBnB hosts. I've learned that AirBnB is usually a much better situation than most hotels:

  • Laundry machines are usually available. Each commercial laundry load in England runs from 6 to 10 pounds, so AirBnB hosts that provide laundry access is worth that much more than an equivalent hotel, but the AirBnB is usually much cheaper.
  • Hosts usually have local knowledge that can be very valuable. While Hotel staff might also be reasonably knowledgeable, nothing beats someone who knows the neighborhood.
  • In many areas, the hotels may not show up on booking.com, but AirBnB does.
  • Finally, if you're traveling with a young child, you might welcome the opportunity to talk to other adults after interacting with a 5 year old all day and answering questions like: "What's 11 divided by 2?"
When using AirBnB, last minute requests are problematic. I've been turned down a few times for being too "last minute", but here's what you can do:
  • The night before, issue 2-3 queries to varying locations, depending on where you intend to go the next day. The likely prospects will "preapprove" you for a listing.
  • The morning of the trip, let the prospective hosts know your intention. If you need to, provide a tracking link from your GPS.
  • Also look for hotels on booking.com in case the hotels are cheaper or in a better location.
  • On Friday and Saturday nights, you must book the night before. There's no alternative. Weekends suck when you're cycle touring, and that's that.
For routing, I've discovered that the National Bike Routes provided by Sustrans are of questionable value. While many of them do provide quiet alternatives on paved roads, it's unpredictable which ones suddenly devolve into dirt roads which may be muddy or not navigable in the rain! What's worse, you can't find Sustrans maps or books in book stores, or cycle shops, so there's no way to evaluate those books/maps to see if they're worth your money. In practice, the books or maps that only cover one particular route are almost useless, as any kind of touring requires that you deviate from the path at some point. The shire-level maps are more interesting, but since I haven't been able to see the maps in person I can't tell whether or not they carefully mark the sections where you have to walk or hoist your bike. In any case, hand-routing is the best for avoiding unpleasant surprised.

Compared with cycling in the USA, most cycle routes in England are great: there are small villages separated by 5-7 miles, and many small roads that don't see very much traffic. Nearly every small town has a bakery with great pastries for lunch, and a picnic area that's gorgeous. However, the roads approaching big towns or cities are horrendous, and even those with a cycle path on the side are unpleasant. I'm not sure I'd return to England for cycling with a tandem. With a single, you can hop on the train to skip the horrible approaches to most big cities. With a tandem, that's simply not an option most of the time.

Traveling with Bowen's a delight. I don't know how much of it is that he's had more adventures so far in his life than most adults had in a decade, and how much of it is that he's just got a great personality. If you've read this trip report, you'll notice that many times he's been the one driving decisions, such as taking a zero day, or going to Oxford to have duck. The same went for lunch and dinner. Whenever possible, I let him pick what he wanted to eat. At every point, he's usually been good about making decisions and sticking to them once he understands the consequences. He also never complained when things got hard or challenging, which is more than I can say of many adults. I think I can recommend that every father do at least one adventure trip with his 5-year old son at least once. It's definitely a bonding experience you'll remember for the rest of your life.
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