history

Roaming Roman Roads

London’s a big, big city.

As we’ve already established, riding a bike in most UK towns is not without its frustrations. So, as there was no real need to go through the biggest city of all, I’d always intended to brush London as lightly as possible.

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But London’s been unavoidable for ages. You need to cross the Thames at some point, and most of the bridges are in town. And ever since Roman times, the capital has been the hub of the country’s major roads. All roads in England seem to lead to London.

Coming in towards town from Kent, I was running along the line of the main Roman route from the English Channel. A route so important that it was fortified and defended for centuries. Rochester’s impressive castle (above) guards the route’s crossing of the river Medway.

And coming out of London into Essex over the last couple of days, I’ve been pushing north-east on another major Roman road, which led out of the metropolis to the garrison town of Colchester. These old Roman routes have the great advantage of being built in mostly dead-straight lines, making them fast, if slightly boring riding. Although it’s always interesting to think that you’re following a route that’s been used for thousands of years, and imagine how many feet, hooves and wheels have passed this way before you.

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I lived in London for a long time, so making distance was not the key point of the last few days. I had friends and family to catch up with (in a responsibly socially-distanced way, of course). As a result, the mileage has been down, and there’s been a certain element of consuming beverages which are, let’s say, somewhat counter-productive to athletic performance.

The other key issue was getting across the Thames. On Sunday, the ferry at Gravesend was not operating, but I was slightly surprised to discover that there’s a free shuttle service for bikes across the monstrous Dartford Crossing (pic above). Arrive at one end, find the magic telephone, and a grumpy driver appears to whisk you from Kent to Essex.

After which, a few uninspiring miles through London’s eastern suburbs took me to some drinks in Romford. A few more similar miles the next morning took me back out of Greater London, and I was soon heading for my final planned social stop in Essex, where I met the newest arrival in my friend’s family (providing a rare opportunity to add a kitten picture to a cycling blog).

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Things are not always exactly as they seem, and despite being cute, the kitten in question is a proper little psychopath.

But things are sometimes exactly as they seem, and the landscape after Chelmsford has quickly begun to fit the East Anglian stereotype. I’m entering the UK’s flat lands, and the cliffs and hills of the south west and the south coast are a memory. Most of the eastern side of England is likely to be big skies, big fields, and an almost total lack of big gradients.

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This will be great with tailwinds, and awful if there are headwinds. I’ll have to wait and see which combination I get as I head north into Suffolk and Norfolk.

I did notice one sign yesterday that there may still be some surprises ahead. Stopping by the side of the road for a map check, I was admiring the hand-painted advert below for a local honey producer.

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Then I noticed that they seem to sell bears as well. I never quite got to the bottom of this, but I think that’s illegal in the UK, as well as impractical, and I’m surprised they are willing to announce this sort of thing by the roadside. Maybe East Anglia will be more interesting than the landscape suggests.

Anyway, the weather still seems OK, and the legs are still pushing the pedals around. I’m on a ferry across into Suffolk this morning (Wednesday), so I’ll find out pretty quickly…

On the Edges

Borderlands are always interesting places.

Mountains plunging into the sea provide stunning landscapes.  Places where cultures bump into each other produce fascinating history (even where they also – all too often – provoke conflict).  It’s at the edges where things are most compelling.

I’ve been in border country since the last post, although I’ve only really appreciated it today.

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Bolu (above) was the last proper city in the hills.  Since then, it’s been small towns and smaller climbs (and some immensely fun downhills), as I’ve crossed from the mountainous interior of Turkey back towards the Sea of Marmara.

And the sea (together with the Aegean, immediately to its south, and the city of Istanbul at its northern end) has been a cultural crossroads since people started writing history.

So the borderland between the hills and the coastal areas is also the edge of a fuzzy cultural boundary.  Although I’m not in Europe yet, things are changing already.  Up in Bolu, things still felt very Asiatic, with the fairly mono-cultural cityscape of mosques, minarets and square buildings dominating.  Within a couple of hundred kilometres, things are much more cosmopolitan.

But the noticeable changes had already begun at Bolu.  Just a few kilometres east of town, my road had been joined in its valley by a motorway.

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That’s not just a road with a designation beginning with ‘M’, as was the case in the former Soviet countries.  It’s a proper, European-style motorway (the main drag between Ankara and Istanbul).  The sort of road where bikes are not allowed.  It’s the first road I’ve seen for months that I can’t ride.

I know that this will be the new normal from here on (and that it’s my normal normal in any case).  But I’ve got so used to rolling along whichever road I want that it feels like a big change.  So does the fact that the chocolate bars in petrol stations have suddenly become the same as at home, where further east, they are all Turkish versions.

I think my perspective might have got a little skewed somewhere along the way…

There are still plenty of reminders that I’m not home just yet.  It’s pretty certain that a flatbed van in Europe wouldn’t be allowed on the road with a ton of apples tied loosely on the back with string.

But that appears to be what caused me a twenty minute delay this morning:

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Thankfully, things got slightly more organised after the big guy in the red shirt started waving his arms and shouting.

This afternoon (Tuesday), the cultural variety and complexity of this area became clearer.  I dropped down to lake Iznik.  I’d been trying to get to a town on the edge of the lake, which is marked up on Google Maps as ‘Nicaea’.  And I’d been getting increasingly concerned that I’d not seen it signposted.  I was just following signs for ‘Iznik’, and hoping that Nicaea would become obvious.

It turns out that Iznik and Nicaea are the same place.  Google uses the Greek name for some unfathomable reason.  Although that was the town’s name when it was established (by a Greek mythological character, apparently), it’s been Iznik for ever as far as the locals are concerned, and Google should probably have caught up by now.

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But it’s not just the names of the town that show how many cultures have had a say in this region over the full course of recorded history.  The city walls, which I casually parked the bike against on the way into town, were originally built by the Ancient Greeks.  The local tourist guide notes, sadly, that ‘only Roman and Byzantine construction remains’.  And that’s still not counting the role of this area of Turkey in the birth of the Ottoman Empire.

There’s an intimidating amount of history in this part of the world, on the edge of so may empires.

I’m going to have a day off tomorrow (Wednesday) to have a proper look around Iznik, and digest some of this stuff.  It’s only about half a mile across, but has ancient churches, mosques, Roman arches, and so on.  It even has a mosque called the Ayasofya, which used to be a church.  Just like Istanbul.  But much, much quieter.

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I’m happy I can get all the layers of history around here, as I’ve decided not to head to the metropolis on the Bosphorus.  I could probably have got to the outskirts today, and entered European Turkey tomorrow.  But I’ve been to Istanbul before, and I’m not quite done with the Asian continent just yet.  And I’ve heard a lot of nightmarish stories about the Istanbul traffic.

Instead, once I’ve had my rest, I’ll head along the south of the Sea of Marmara.  It’ll take an extra few days to get to Europe, but I should see some more interesting places, and enjoy the coastline.

There’s one other, slightly fuzzy edge which merits a quick mention (in my book, at least).  And that’s the edge of space.  This is usually considered to be the Karman Line, and is 100km (62 miles) above the surface of the Earth.

Why is the Karman Line of any interest?  Because, yesterday, while grinding up yet another incline, I reached 100,000 metres (or 100 km) of vertical gain on the round-the-world trip.  I’ve climbed to the edge of space on a bicycle with bags hanging off it.

No wonder my legs need a break…