A Journey Around the British Isles … Part 90
I’ve stayed longer than I’d planned. Newtown gets you like that. It wasn’t a town I knew much about, but the longer I stay, the more engaged I become. It’s not every town that has a claim to have pushed along democracy; and it’s not every town that has a famous son. Newtown played it’s part in extending the vote; and as far as a celebrity, it had one right out of the very top drawer of British history. In the game of famous people top trumps, Robert Owen just about outscores the pack in every category.
But I’m hungry and I’ve got the scent of England in my nostrils. I like to travel to different places and I’ve found it one of the great pleasures of my life to explore Scotland, Ireland and Wales on this jaunt, but there is no place like home. Those hills I can see in the distance are in Shropshire and I didn’t expect to be within shouting distance of it today. The weather is brightening and there are still a lot of hours of daylight, a lot of strength in my legs and plenty of determination in my heart. The closer I get to home, the stronger the pull. I’ve been away long enough, I want to see my family, walk my dog and sleep in my own bed.
There don’t seem to be too many places to eat so I plump for the sandwich shop on the main street. Despite it approaching teatime, the shop is still doing a lively trade and the four girls are being kept busy. Two are Welsh and two (sisters) are not. Their accents are a little bit Cerys Matthews veering rapidly in and out of Julie Walters doing a Brummie and Jane Horrocks in Little Voice. They are all under twenty and remind me of many a back row of a disaffected classroom. In my teaching experience such girls don’t care much for being interupted in their discourse on make-up, Vodka Breezers and how high they can pile their hair, to discuss the poetic devices employed by Christina Rossetti in Goblin Market. Here they are freed up from the exigencies of the curriculum but they seem equally bored.
“Ham salad is it? Do you want anything on that?”
“What salad cream and mustard? You sure of that?”
“Have we got any mustard Kerri? This man wants mustard and salad cream both on the same sandwich.”
“We haven’t got any English mustard.”
“No we haven’t got any French mustard either.”
“No, looks like we haven’t got any mustard at all. You still want salad cream?”
“Yes, we’ve got plenty of that. Now white or wholemeal?”
She continues refining my order in a way that would do Descartes credit. If there is any doubt about any of it, it gets ditched. I ask her what it’s like to live in Newtown.
“I’m not from here see. Me and my sister are English. Dad moved here so we had to come with him.”
“It’s all right I suppose. Bit shite if you want to do any thing. We go to Shrewsbury for a night out. Mind you. That’s a bit shite too. That’ll be two pounds ninety five please.”
I get a polystyrene cup of tea with two sugars and lean against my bicycle. A portly cyclist in full kit, wraparound sun specs and a decent looking bicycle goes past. I wonder if it could be Barry Hoban. I know he lives near here. Nobody pays any attention so maybe it isn’t the man who at that time held the record for the most stage wins by a Briton in the Tour de France. Or maybe superstar sportsmen are ten a penny in Mid Wales.
I buy a map in Smiths and plot some sort of a route. I’m keen to reach England, keen to find some back roads after spending all day on a red route, and keen to be aiming at Shrewsbury in the hope that I’d be able to find somewhere decent to stay. I have the usual dilemma of the cyclist who is trying to get from A to B. Big direct roads or quiet lanes that meander back on themselves for miles. If I stay on the main drag and follow the Severn I come to a place called Abermule. The internet on my phone tells me that it has a canal, was the site of a railway crash in the twenties and was the one time home of composer Peter Warlock. I’ve never heard of him. But if I get there, I’ve got much quieter roads all the way to Montgomery, and once I’m there I’m practically in England. I’ll be able to say I crossed Wales in a day on a bicycle. Abermule it is.
It’s a pleasant mixture of old and new houses and a three storey hotel imaginatively called The Abermule Hotel. There’s nothing else there to hold me long and the village does prove a gateway to green lanes, quieter roads and a shadow that slowly elongates as it moves round in front of me. My legs still feel strong and this is some of the pleasantest cycling of the whole journey. The pastures are green, the harvest is coming in and the trees hang heavy in full summer leaf. The road goes gently up and down and I keep going mile upon mile. On days like today it doesn’t matter when a car cuts you up. I just smile and wave and they double the revs and show me just how much faster their car can go than a fifty two year old cyclist on a thirty year old bicycle laden with panniers. I’m suitably impressed and make a note not to take them on at speed trials again.
Montgomery is every bit as lovely as its name suggests. I’m reminded of Kirby Stephen. A small town packed full of character; a medieval castle and a rather lovely church. Not many towns have a bell museum; Montgomery does. It also has a proper ironmongers with galvanised buckets outside. It doubles as a cycle shop and I’m very tempted to go in but can think of nothing I lack. I am almost completely happy. In the words of the song. “If I could have a wish, I think I’d pass. Can’t think of anything I need.” I wonder if Marion Montgomery (sixties British singer who occasionally appeared on television) ever sang that song. Was it in Jim Montgomery’s (Sunderland FA Cup winning goalkeeper) record collection? I slowly go through all the Montgomery’s I know. When I get to Colin the golfer I change games. Life’s too short for golf.
The hills of Shropshire form a dramatic skyline. They are some of the finest hills in England and have some of the best names; Wenlock Edge, The Long Mynd, The Wrekin, The Stretton Hills. Fortunately for me and my legs, the hills are to the south and will remain my skyline for an hour or two longer. I don’t have to climb them.