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Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Prolog: Manchester Airport Etrop Grange Hotel

In the middle of March, my wife and I planned a visit to England. I realized that if I tacked on a couple of weeks at the end, this would be a chance to do a bicycle tour with Bowen in England, a country where I’ve never toured by bicycle before. I asked Bowen if he’d like to do this, and he said yes. 

I started the trip planning process thinking about a tour in the Peaks District or in Wales, but Bowen short-circuited the entire thing by asking if we could go to Gibbet’s Hill, which is a level in one of Bowen’s favorite game, Tearaway. I wrote to the developers and asked if Gibbet’s Hill was a real feature, and was sent to a Wikipedia link noting that Gibbet’s Hill was in Hindhead, near Guildford. 

I looked at the area and decided that between Manchester and Hindhead were the Cotswolds, Stratford Upon Avon, and Oxford, all worthy of visits. If time permitted, the rest of South Downs National Park looked pretty as well, so I did some  back of the envelope calculations which indicated that the entire trip would run about 300 miles, which was easily doable in 10 days if there was a train transfer back from Hindhead. 

Unfortunately, English trains do not typically take tandems, and in fact, the only tandem transfer service I could find back to Manchester ran from the London Euston station on Virgin Trains. This would add another 50 miles or so to the trip, but I figured in the worst case I could arrange a one way rental by car, take apart the S&S coupled tandem and stuff it in the car. It took several international calls via Skype to reserve a train ticket with a bicycle space, but that was accomplished by the end of May. 

The biggest challenge was coping with the bike. While Virgin Airlines’ website had led me to believe that a plastic bag was all that was necessary to bring the bike on the plane, at the airline checkin counter they insisted on a box. This completely messed up my plan to just ride the tandem to the hotel from the airport, and I ended up having to get a ride from the car rental company to accomplish this. 

After our 2 week family tour in England, Bowen and I put Xiaoqin and Boen on the plane, got back into the rental car, and immediately found a laundromat to do laundry. We then checked into the hotel with all our luggage, returned the rental car, and got a ride back to the Etrop Grange Hotel so we could assemble the bike. Bowen's bunny arrived safely, and he was happy to play with it while I worked on the bike.

Upon assembling the bike, I discovered that I had forgotten to pack chain oil, and so we had to ride to find a shop to sell us one. We also tried to get clear eye protection for Bowen, but could not find any, so he was stuck wearing his sunglasses for the entire trip, rain or shine. 

Our final goal was to get a hair cut, as the short ride to the bike shop had made both of us itchy under the helmet, since neither of us were used to having longish hair and helmets as a combination. I asked the hotel receptionist if we’d have to go to downtown Manchester for that, but she told us to just walk to the civic center, which turned out to have a barber shop, several supermarkets, bakeries, and a shop which sold me a SIM card for UK services. Last year, T-mobile ran a promotion during the summer which gave us LTE speeds in Europe but this year the promotion was over and I could definitely tell that performance was less than acceptable. 

In the Alps, I wouldn’t have minded, but in England with its dense road networks and multitudes of ways to get lost, I was dependent on the phone for navigation. So I paid up for a SIM card: 20 pounds for 12GB of data, 300 minutes of calls, and 3000 text messages, which would be very generous if not for the 30 day expiration date. 

After the haircut, we spent some time in the playground before returning to the hotel to pack. Painswick Park included a snake and ladders game, and this being Bowen's first exposure to that game, he insisted on playing it 4-5 times before returning to the hotel. On most tours, I’m a minimalist, trying to bring as little as possible. On this tour, however, I knew that there would be playground stops, and we wouldn’t spend all day riding, so brought a long more than the usual electronic luxuries, including the Playstation Vita and the Kindle

When in California, I’d plotted out a couple of potential first day routes , but looking at the weather forecast, I knew that any of the hillier options were off the table. Furthermore, it looked like the further south we went, the better the weather got, so our major priority was to head south as much as possible. 

One of the receptionists at the Hotel was a local, so I asked her advice on potential routes. I’m glad I did, since she immediately pointed out to me that the western towns (Wilmslow, Knutsford, Northwich and Nantwich) were prettier and quieter than the eastern towns near Birmingham, Telfords, and Stoke on Trent. That essentially caused me to replot the entire trip towards Market Drayton rather than through the Peak District.

Looking at the map, Market Drayton at 50 miles looked like a manageable first day, but of course, the riding would be full of unknowns: I'd never been in this country before, and I had no idea how much Bowen would want to do. It looked like there were plenty of towns to stop at should the need arose, however, so we went to bed full of optimism about the next day.

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