50 Quirky Bike Rides
Rob Ainsley
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Buy *50 Quirky Bike Rides in England and Wales* by Rob Ainsley online

50 Quirky Bike Rides in England and Wales
Rob Ainsley
Eye Books
272 pages
February 2008
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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Being an avid cyclist myself, and having lived in England for more than five years, I count myself a local expert and therefore qualified to review this well-conceived guide to bicycling on the Big Island.

To be fair, it isn't just about cycling. It's a wonderful guide to the countryside (and some of the cities) of England and Wales (and bits of France thrown in for good measure). Where we live, it's pretty much inconceivable that one could just bike into another country, but with the EU in full flower and the tunnel well established, you can do just that in Europe.

I have read rail-trail books for U.S. bikers, and while the format is similar, the rail-trail guides seem tame compared to some of the terrain that an English/Welsh cyclist might confront. Take the "magnetic hills" for example - what's THAT about? In Ashton Clinton, in the South Midlands, there's a hill that, by optical clues, assures you you're going uphill, and yet you find yourself free-wheeling - the only way to put it, as the author has, is "The quickness of the land deceives the eye."

I noted several dice-with-death experiences available to the English cyclist - places where that legendary stiff upper lip would come in handy. One is the Netherton Tunnel, a piece of canal towpath that is three kilometers long. Okay, I did some math. This tunnel is nearly two miles long. I recently walked my bike through a rail tunnel just 2,100 feet long on the North Bend Trail in West Viginia and felt, as the English would say, quite chuffed - but at no time, despite the ever-present fog, could I not see one or the other end of this curving brick-lined masterpiece of American engineering. Not so in Nethy - as Rob Ainsley describes: "You'll certainly need lights, and maybe a Bible or a Qu'ran. There is no illumination, save a couple arrows of light from ventilation shafts...and it's a long, long, long way through."

But that, to my mind, is not the greatest test of the British biker's bravery. Save that for the "flying canal" at the unpronounceable Pontcysyltte. As the author puts it, "Thomas Telford's remarkable structure celebrated 200 years of scaring the crap out of people." The "flying horse trough" consists of a narrow boat canal one one side, and a narrow pathway on the other. The cyclist or walker has a railing on one side, and a floating channel on the other with no barrier. This whole mad conception is 300 meters long (you do the math), only 3 meters wide, and 38 meters above the ground. If you want a fantastic view of this man-made marvel, try www.bbc.co.uk/shropshire/content/panoramas/pontcysyllte_aqueduct_360.shtml, providing a panoramic view - though I warn you, acrophobics should not even look at the photos, much less try to BICYCLE over this terror-inducing bridge, although we are told that the locals "cycle across nonchalantly with one hand, texting their friends with the other and weaving through the wandering sightseers."

Not every "quirky" ride in the book is an experience in confronting your worst fears - in fact, the English countryside is so lovely, even in baddish weather, that there are hundreds of places to cycle in greatest comfort. You don't have to ride over suspension bridges, up a washed-out roadway with a sheer drop on one side, or assay the steepest inclines in Christendom - though if that is your pleasure, this book will direct you thither. You can instead hop a ferry or train to France and spend the day getting smashed on cheap plonk and cycling the benign Gallic roadways. You can ride under the famed Wellington Arch, or along the restful waters of the Thames. Or, on the last Friday of every month, you can ride the streets of central London unhampered by traffic, in a biking "rave" known as Critical Mass.

It's obvious that this book is the one that any serious (or hobbyist) biker should take when visiting the UK. What is less obvious is that the book would make a great walker's or general vacationer's guide, detailing as it does some scenic ferry rides, canal trips, and days out by vintage train. Fares and fees are given, and local eateries ("snackstops" and "bevvy breaks") included. Nice size, too - very backpack-able.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. Barbara Bamberger Scott, 2008

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