What follows is a (largely) unembelished tale of a wild bicycle tour through Oxfordshire – stopping to visited the graves of distinguished English gentlemen (and one very special lady), drinking pints of English ale in their honor, learning how to enjoy a proper English tea, a brief toedip into beetlemania, and stumbling across some very interesting pieces of American history…all squeezed in to a mere 8 hours so we could make it home for a proper English roast!
Years ago on a work trip to Brazil, I was at the evening mixer and met an interesting English chap who worked in publishing. We talked and discovered we had a lot in common – sports, travel, reading. Wound up exchanging emails and ultimately stayed in touch on Facebook. Then, a couple of years back I received a message saying he was visiting North Carolina and would love to pop in for a visit and to meet my husband. At the end of our visit, our English friend, Adam, extended an invitation to visit his home in England. Time passed, and we didn’t manage a visit. Adam’s first visit was followed by another trip to America a year later. This time we again spun dreams of a visit to England and the dead guys bike tour idea was floated. We made plans, wondering if it would ever happen. Then I moved to Germany. Surely, we would make the trip since it was now within driving distance. Alas, time was slipping by, 12 months to go, now less than 6 months to go and I’m very pleased to say, we finally did it! We made it to England and you can guess our very first stop – to see our English friend Adam.
Now, in those years between when Adam first visited and we finally managed to visit England, the plan for our dead guys bike tour began to build. Adam lives in a town very near Oxford. The home of many, many famous dead guys (and ladies, as I learned). Adam also knows how much we love to bike, and drink the occasional pint of beer. So, he began to map out a route for a day of biking to grave sites, visiting nearby famous pubs, and experiencing “real” England (which I came to learn is basically any city outside of London).
Here follows the tale of our whirlwind dead guys bike tour.
The night before our tour we diligently studied the map over a pint of real English ale. Who am I kidding, we had already consumed a pint and this beer is strong! We listened attentively as Adam mapped out our plans including more than a dozen stops and a few surprise locations for good measure. We had another pint, because we were in England, why not, and turned in rather early with a plan to be rolling down the driveway by 9 am the next morning. Adam is a military chap so I knew I must be on time! Otherwise… push-ups!
I’m proud to say that we departed a mere 5 minutes late, pretty good considering we were on holiday. The day dawned a bit cold and overcast with a promising forecast calling for sunshine and blue skies. I began to wonder what country I was actually in, could this be the same England where it allegedly rains all the time??? (Sidebar: You should have seen and heard the reactions of the Germans when I told them I was taking vacation to England. The most common reaction was “why?” accompanied by a quizzical worried face. Germans prefer sunny and warm places).
I didn’t have to wait long to be reminded that, yes, indeed, I was in England. Our first stop was in Sutton Courtney to admire an authentic Thatched roof house. This was a special stop just for me as Adam knew my maiden name is Thacher, originating from the trade of building Thatched roofs. Here is the fine specimen we admired.
We crossed over the river Thames via a lovely bridge that reminded my husband of Central Park. I had to agree. By now the temperature had climbed enough that we’d all shed a layer clothing. A good promise of the beautiful day to come.
The Thames was our companion for most of the day. A lovely river and rather small and natural looking in this portion of the country. Populated by a variety of ducks and people paddling in kayaks and row boats. Schools of tiny fish flashed in the water. Honestly, a week later when we walked along the Thames in London, I found it hard to believe that it was the same river!
After a slight mishap on the trail (I leave out the details to protect the innocent), we made a B-line to our first stop in Abbingdonn. My first impression was the fresh green grass of the cricket fields bordering the town – this must be a very orderly place, I thought. We paused for a moment to admire the fine architecture before pedaling back out of the town. Onward to Oxford!
We departed Abbingdon via national bicycle route 5, a beautiful green path that mostly followed the Thames. Everything went ok after I avoided my first head-on bicycle crash due to the fact that I was riding on the right side of the road which is totally wrong in England. “Keep Left” became the command of the day!
Very soon we noticed more buildings along the Thames and suddenly popped out in Oxford. I asked the fellows to pose on the first bridge for a picture and they happily accommodated, much more than 50 pictures later when they began to avoid the camera… until they had a pint that is… then they became very photo friendly again!
As we rolled through the city, I spotted Oxford press and asked for a picture with Adam who grudgingly agreed to snap a photo in front of “the enemy”. I have no idea how much profit Oxford press gained from all those textbooks I bought in college, but I would guess it was more than a 10 pound note, or few!
So, you’re probably beginning to wonder when the dead guys part of our bike tour began, be patient, it’s coming soon, and the first dead guy is huge!!!!
First, we biked across a meadow and made our first GPS map check. Boy, the guys had fun with that moment! 🙂 Adam had a new GPS watch he wanted to test out and it worked like a charm.
Coordinates checked and having verified we were on the correct route, we did a time check and found we were running behind schedule. No time for leisure! Our proper English roast was being prepared and if we were late Adam would perish! Chas raced ahead and I followed, green grass flying below our wheels.
We paused on a city street in Oxford and saw a couple walking by. This is the moment when we took a rather, I daresay, unorthodox decision… instead of consulting a phone for the location of the first dead guy, we spoke with the lady walking by! It was amazing! She was helpful and pointed us to the right and instructed us on a few turns. Between the 3 of us we could remember the instructions, and off we charged down the road to visit the spinner of Fantastical tales. None other than J.R.R. Tolkien!
We confidently followed the path markers and then walked right past the grave twice before realizing that JR stood for John Ronald. I think he has a beautiful resting place. Much simpler than I expected and the forget me nots are a nice touch. Most delightful was to discover that someone had left a “precious” on the rose bush planted in the grave.
Now it was time to raise a pint in honor of J.R.R. Tolkien. We shoved off to the Eagle and Child. Sadly the doors were not open at noon on Sunday, fancy that! I snapped a photo as we checked the train timetable.
The Eagle and Child was selected because it was a gathering place of the likes of JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis during the days when they were crafting tales such as the Lord of the Rings and the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. The tales that shaped the fantasy world of my childhood!
Since the pub was closed, we made our first, of many to come, plan B deployment. No good adventure is without a complicated Plan B! We popped into a burrito shop to grab a quick lunch and our first beer – a cold Modelo! You know it wasn’t a real English ale because it was proper ice chilled cold!
Refueled, we quickly pedaled to the train station for our journey to Cholsey: Adam’s hometown! I have to say it’s hard to beat the fun of taking a bike on a train! This was a first time for Chas and he was excited.
Now, you might be remembering that I mentioned beetlemania… as we departed the train station in Cholsey, Adam shared a story about a time when his mom had a Beetle sighting right here at the train station back in the 60’s! We also spotted an interesting looking alleyway, but alas, no time to explore, we were off to find another dead guy!
We pedaled through Cholsey, past Adam’s childhood home, then climbed across a steeply banked train bridge and were greeting by a beautiful sweeping scenery.
Hiding behind the giant blooming chestnut trees, we discovered St. Mary’s church and the resting place of none other than the queen of mystery: Agatha Christie.
After our train journey and climbing that train bridge, we were thirsty again and popped in to The Red Lion for a half pint. Not a full pint, only a half. Why, you ask did we drink only a half pint of fine English ale? This is why: we were racing against the clock as we had a strict tea time to make at Adam’s family home. No time to dilly dally.
Adam poured pints here when he was a young chap!
I left with a souvenir Brakespear glass! I couldn’t resist, it was decorated with a beautiful bumblebee.
We soon arrived at a beautiful brick home, which is a new house Adam’s parents have recently built on their family land. They are a lovely couple, wonderful hosts and full of stories. Adam’s mom set about making us some proper English tea. She asked if we’d like to use the fine China, to which I responded, yes, of course. Owning a set of China myself, I know how much we ladies love to have an occasion to pull it out and dust it off. As Cecilia and I chatted during tea preparations, the fellows again consulted the maps to plan our next stops.
The home has a beautiful backyard beyond which is the banks of the Thames. We enjoyed the warm sunshine and watching a family of Kites flying about landing in the trees. They have a family of Kites living in one of their trees and they are just beautiful birds!
Cecilia brought out our pot of earl grey tea along with shortbread, biscuits and cream. We filled our fine china tea cups with tea and a spot of cream and proceeded to sip it with pinkies in the air! I learned how to properly hold the tea cup plate in my left hand above my lap while holding the tea cup in my right. We had a proper good time! As we sipped tea, we chatted, and this is when I discovered that Agatha Christie’s home was right next door!
Before we continued our journey we stopped off for a visit and a selfie! How could I resist!
Adam’s mother accompanied us on the walk to the Thames where we found the Oxford university boat house, Agatha Christie’s boat house and even met up with one of Adam’s great cousins walking along with a German friend. It’s a small world, especially in Oxfordshire!
While we enjoyed our tea, Adam had informed his parents about our next graveyard stop and instructed them to not give away the surprise. So, I was very curious to see who we would meet next! We pedaled into Wallingford and I noticed a very distinctive church spire looming above the town. Would this be our destination? Yes, it was! We leaned our bikes up in the cemetery and walked in to St. Peter’s. My curiosity peaked as I wondered when we would explore the graveyard.
Instead of going outside, Adam directed our attention to a marble slab in the aisle near the alter. Then the story began. Back in the 1760’s William Blacktone wrote a document commenting on the laws of England. Around that time, ahem, a group of folks decided to have a revolution! Yes, you guessed it, we were admiring the grave of the man who wrote a document that largely shaped our Constituion and Declaration of Independence! Don’t know about you, but I never learned about this guy in history class! I also found it fitting that his grave was marked with a black stone.
I had told Adam about my puritan preacher English ancestors (you’ll learn about them in another post) and he pointed out the eagle statue to the right of the alter. This eagle is a puritanical symbol and also reminds me a lot of eagle symbolism which is common in America.
We pushed our bikes to a pub on the banks of the Thames.
The line for beer was long, so we again deployed plan B and pedaled over to the town park where a car show was underway.
We topped up with a pint of Fuller’s London Pride – a beer advertised as being made from water out of Thames. The barkeep dubiously confirmed this was true. 🙂 After admiring the cars a bit, we pedaled out of town for what I thought was an easy run home. Boy, was I wrong. Soon, the elevation began to climb as we trudged up the only hill in the area. I’ll admit that I struggled a bit on trusty Apollo, my wheels for the day. Neither of us was prepared for the climb. We pushed on and soon reached the mountain peak. As I panted to the top Adam explained why we had made the trek. These hills – the clumps as they’re called in the area – are ancient lands where the Celtic people lived and shaped the land into defensible forts. We also had a chance to admire views of the valley and Thames below.
The rest of the trip was smooth sailing. We flew downhill and what happened next was one of the coolest moments of the day. Three white swans flew direcrly over us, not more than 10 feet above our heads. I listened blissfully to the flapping of their wings and gentle honking sounds. I have never seen swans flying before, a rare, delightful sight!
We made our final dead guy stop in Adam’s church graveyard. This one surprised me the most, and I can’t explain why I was so surprised, but I was!
Here we met none other than Eric Blair (pen name: George Orwell!). The author of Animal Farm and many other wonderful stories! Once again I was struck by the simplicity of the grave.
Our guide had again planned well and there was a pub right next to the cemetery. This one had my favorite name of the day: the George and Dragon.
We had just 20 minutes before the roast would be served. Barely enough time to chill on the grass for our final half pint. I couldn’t resist a pour of Thatchers cider knowing we would pedal back by the thatched roof house on our way home.
As we basked in the final rays of sunshine we reminisced about our adventure. A day filled with wonderful scenery, remarkable literary history, friendly folk and many miles along the beautiful river Thames that ties the shire of Oxford together. Thanks, Adam, for an unforgettable adventure! Until next time, Cheers!
And if you love the dead guys bike tour idea send me a route for your area and we can set up another!