Suck, Squeeze, Bang, Blow …Touring England on a Thumper

Story by Cheryl Lewis// Photos by Cheryl Lewis
January 1 2008

Early spring of this year, I found myself with extra energy to burn. Without much thought, I purchased my first motorcycle. Taking and passing an appropriate riding course a few weeks later, I removed my pride and joy from its parking spot in the garage and set my sights on a summer of riding. Travelling slower than most mopeds, I took my 250 Honda Rebel out onto the roads of the Grey Bruce area. A short few months later with 5000 km of sight-seeing, I found myself looking for a bigger bike and a larger challenge.

Ironically, an old school friend of over 25 years contacted me and extended the olive branch to visit him and his family in England. Having been an encouraging voice while I was a beginner rider, he suggested a tour of England would be an experience that I wouldn’t forget and one that would definitely enhance my riding skills. Being the well-seasoned rider that I had so proudly credited myself with, I gladly accepted his offer and found myself on UK soil shortly thereafter. Surely touring England wouldn’t be any different than riding in Canada, now would it?

I arrived in England and we pulled into his driveway, parked and got out of his vehicle. There sat his two bikes; he would be riding his DRZ Suzuki and I would be riding his XT550 Yamaha. I looked curiously at this white enduro that would become my transportation over the course of the next few weeks (and 1700 miles). There was no electric start on this bike; it was a kick-start only. It was a single cylinder thumper, known so because as it runs, it thumps. Being a 4-stroke engine it is more passionately referred to as suck, squeeze, bang, blow. I became more than a little apprehensive in anticipation of the riding that lay ahead of me.

The next day I was wearing my friends riding gear. I pulled my full-face helmet firmly on my head, straddled the bike and braced for the unexpected. My friend Chris pulled up along side of me and asked if I was ready to go. I, of course, assured him that I was. Being no fool, he simply smiled at me and said in a calm but stern voice, “…follow me, stay close, keep left and for god’s sake mate, pay attention.” Off we went, scared to death and recognizing that I may very well have bitten off more than I could chew. I never took my eyes off the road ahead of me and remained less than 10 feet away from my friend’s rear tire. Chris rides accordingly. He tells me later that he hasn’t forgotten his first days of riding, however, I suspect he was gravely concerned that this novice rider could quickly make scrap metal of his bike in a matter of mere seconds.

It was my first day of riding in a different country and a day that I will never forget. Riding on the left hand side of the road quickly became the least of my concerns. There seemed to be NO straight roads in England. The twisties (curves) are dangerous and occur every few feet or so. Most of the roads seemed to be mere cow paths that are paved to form so-called “roads”. The hedgerows of brush and wild plants, which are at minimum, eight feet in height, blanket each side of the road like a frame on a picture and are part of the road system everywhere. Although lovely, they make horrific blind spots. So, not only can one not see directly ahead because of the constant sharp turns, your peripheral vision is shot because of the hedgerow. There are no shoulders on the roads, no yellow or white painted markings, and in some cases the roads narrow to a point that makes it difficult for a motorcycle to remain on their side of the road, let alone any vehicle. Some passing vehicles often result in one vehicle backing up to allow the other through. As Chris leaned beautifully into our first left curve, I quickly lost sight of his back tire. These twisties are tight and I wore most of the hedgerow as I too leaned into the turn. As I recuperated from the turn, an oncoming car quickly approached. I almost forgot to stay to the left, leaning into another twisty that came quickly to the right. At this point, I wasn’t sure if I was having fun as I tried to pull a small branch that had lodged itself between my jacket sleeve and my glove.

We are only 10 minutes into the ride and travelling through the local town of Newbury which is at the crossroads of southern England, (less than an hour from London, Oxford, Bristol and the South Coast). I felt somewhat more comfortable, but the feeling only lasted for a minute. The roads weren’t nearly as narrow and I thought that now my heart would slowly return to its normal beating pattern. All appeared to be going well as we entered our first roundabout. I think I could compare my experience to that of Russian roulette. I rode in sheer terror as I tried to maneuver my thumper through, following my riding partner even closer than before. I watched in horror in my right mirror as a motorist missed my back wheel by mere inches. I truly believed that I was going to be doing my first 360. This would be the first of many roundabouts; none of which I truly believe I became comfortable with. Although I am aware of the few roundabouts in Canada, I missed our stop signs and yearned to come to a full stop without muttering “Mother of God” as I merged into the depths of the roundabouts. They were unnerving to say the least. The town roads weren’t much wider or any less forgiving than the country roads. Regardless of where you are in England, if you have the spine, you can filter through traffic without penalty. If traffic has come to a standstill, you can glide between cars with ease, or just zip on ahead, weaving your way past, leaving your fellow motorist behind.

The sleepy villages are neatly nestled into the countryside which again, like the hedgerows, are charming to look at, but extremely dangerous if you’re riding and someone decides to pull out of their driveway. In some cases, drivers have more than half of their cars extended from their driveway to look for any oncoming traffic. As riders, you have to be constantly aware of these dangers as you approach the hidden hamlets or villages. T-Stops seem to appear out of thin air and making a turn from one of them is not fun, hoping only that as you proceed into the turn, another vehicle hasn’t moved close or swerved behind you as you continue on your way. Horses and their riders are common sights on these roads. One simply cannot see what the hell lies before them. I watched in awe as other motorcyclists lean so far into some of these twisties that their knee touched and followed the road beneath them. I had an opportunity to speak to some of the riders as we eventually caught up with them at the pubs. This is where I learned of the Isle of Man T.T. Race. With speeds of more than 200 miles per hour on these winding and unforgiving roads, these riders put their skills to the test and put in perspective what true riding is all about. Deaths in these races are a part of the race, a very common and accepted occurrence. Steve McQueen was once quoted as saying, “Racing is life. Anything before or after is just waiting”. For the serious riders of the UK, that statement speaks volumes.

During my riding days there, I saw maybe two Harleys and perhaps a handful of cruisers; this is the land of the enduros and sport bikes only. The road system isn’t set up for the larger bikes. They would, at best, be nearly impossible to get you anywhere without a great deal of difficulty. The Roman roads (which are dead straight) and the express routes (‘A’ roads) are user friendly to the larger bikes. However, byways can soon lead to footpaths. The infamous green lanes (or greenways) which to me are unpaved cow paths, are basically ruts in the road usually found between farmers fields and are not much better than a footpath. Riding through potholes, suddenly finding yourself on top of gravel, grass and the odd protruding tree root (similar to the Bruce Trail) is typical of these “roads”.

Let’s not forget about the unpredictable weather patterns. Sun showers are the norm. One morning, heading on another tour, the sky was clear and the sun bright. Shortly thereafter, I watched ominous cloud formations that brought on some pretty nasty weather. On a good note, the weather changes frequently during the day, so if you get rained on you will quickly dry. The wind can also add to the excitement; nothing like having strong gales of wind pelt rain off your body as you’re straining to see the road ahead of you.

But I digress…Together we ride our way through the carriageways of villages and hamlets and I become more comfortable with my thumper, allowing the bike to guide me through each of the challenging roadways that lay ahead of me. Although the bike is a small single with a surprising vibration, its hesitation becomes a comfortable rhythm to me. We continue on my first day to explore the Wiltshire area and view the “white horses” that are a familiar sight to the locals. There were thirteen white horses in existence at one time in the area, but only seven remain visible. I was in awe of these huge hillside chalk-carvings that have been etched into abrupt slopes and can be seen from about 20 miles away. The Westbury Horse, for example, is 182 feet from nose to tail and 108 feet from ear to hoof. These horses were purposely created to be seen from great distances but to my knowledge, no one really knows why. Educated guesses have been made throughout the years but it remains a mystery. Although our riding tour found us exploring other mysteries that encompass England like Stonehenge, the White Horses of Wiltshire remain one of my favourites.

I highly recommend and even challenge the most experienced of riders to test their skills on the roads of England. The countryside is engulfed with history (some of which was extremely violent), and one doesn’t have to travel far to marvel at its beauty and tranquility. The city of York is breathtaking. The remains of the Roman wall still intact within the city. Riding your bike to any seaside coast will end with a delicious treat of authentic fish and chips, wrapped in paper, to be eaten as you overlook the breaking seawaters ahead of you. The city of Bath boasts the Roman springs and the lifestyle that accompanied the civilization of those times. The village of Cheddar will astonish even the most-seasoned of travellers. The limestone cliffs reach heights of 450 feet above a gorge, three miles in length. I will guess that the caves are perhaps the prettiest and largest in England.

My first day riding in England with less than three months experience on a motorbike was an experience that left me wanting more. As we continued riding over the course of the days that followed, I grew more confident in my ability and remained less focused on my tour guides back wheel and began to enjoy the ride and the country that I was in. Being ever so cocky, I, at one point, even passed my friend to assume the lead. I was promptly reminded of my place as my friend resumed his position on the road and signaled. Never did I think that I would find myself riding an enduro in England with a friend of 25 years and given the finger. Without sarcasm, it was wonderful. There seems to be as many motorcycles on the roads of England as cars with just as many female riders as male. Gas is just over $2.00 a litre, so it is little wonder that motorcyclists are everywhere. I highly recommend that if you too are a new rider, touring England is a great way to gain confidence. It will allow you to hone in on skills that will help shape you into the more confident rider that you will become. I do not, by any means, consider myself an expert rider (far from it, I stalled my own bike leaving my driveway just recently), but do consider myself privileged to have had the opportunities that were presented to me as a new rider. For the more experienced riders, I strongly suggest (even dare) you to test your abilities and skills, challenging yourselves on the roads of England. You may be humbled by your experience.

I confess, I have been bitten hard by a riding bug and there is no cure. I look forward to my future of riding and hope to follow in the footsteps of fellow exploring riders. There is a world to see, cultures to be exposed to and a vast land of nature to explore. I wish to be amongst those who are able to see and experience all of what our little planet has to offer. Chris and I remain in contact; our emails focus on our next ride, which at this stage is the East Coast of Canada.

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