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Tour de England 2014 – Week 3: Shakespeare Country and The Cotswolds

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“How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank” ~William Shakespeare (Merchant of Venice, V, i)

At the end of the last post detailing my recent trip to England, I’d overcome several days of unfortunate GI distress just in time to board a train back to the midlands region of the country.  I traveled from York through Birmingham to land in familiar territory and my personal favorite, Stratford-upon-Avon.  I’d visited the birthplace town of the Bard back in 2012 for the World Shakespeare Festival (just prior to the London Olympics) and really loved it, so I carved out three and half more days on this return trip to relax and enjoy this pretty little town on the river once again.

By the way, do you know why some towns in England have “on” in their name (like Bourton-on-the-Water) while others have “upon,” such as Stratford-upon-Avon?  Those with “on” find the towns built mostly or entirely on one side of the river, while those with “upon” are built on both sides of the river…or so I’m told…and there’s your English geography and name-origin lesson for the day.

For this trip to Stratford I chose to stay at Moss Cottage B&B, which I can highly recommend if you ever find yourself in that corner of the world.  I’d gotten to know the proprietor (hi Bill!) via Twitter over the past year prior to my trip, so it felt a little like meeting an old friend, and the accommodations were very lovely. The B&B was located a healthy 1-mile walk from the center of town, so I got in plenty of exercise during my stay – which simply meant I could indulge in daily cream teas and/or a wonderful sticky toffee pudding at The Opposition, another one of my favorites I discovered on my last time there.

My first afternoon back in Stratford, I strolled up to town via Holy Trinity Church, where Shakespeare is buried.  There is a bench on the church grounds that I like to sit on – it faces the river and is situated on a gravel pathway, with a huge weeping willow overhanging the short stone wall in-between, and the church just behind.  Sitting there, I can watch people strolling along the riverwalk on the opposite side and rowers making their way down the water.  It’s shady and peaceful and feels like “my spot.”  It’s especially nice with a light drizzly rain coming down and dripping off all the trees.

My Stratford-upon-Avon Spot

My Stratford-upon-Avon Spot

After a nice decompression session on that bench, I continued on the walkway up the river, past the Royal Shakespeare Company theatre and into the adjoining gardens, with all the canal boats and swans and Bard-inspired flower features.  It really is the loveliest town I’ve come across so far during my England travels; I know I’m a little biased (I’ve been a Shakespeare fan since the age of 16) but the town council & local businesses really do a good job of keeping everything in beautiful condition.  I stopped by a grocery store to buy a sandwich for dinner and a discounted bag of day-old bread, and found a spot to feed the Queen’s swans.  Then I was able to catch a small theatre production of “Sense & Sensibility” at the Lazy Cow, walking back by moonlight to the B&B later that night.

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Stratford’s Swans

Flower gardens inspired by Shakespeare's words

Flower gardens inspired by Shakespeare’s words

Boats on the Avon at dusk (Anyone recognize these??? :)

Boats on the Avon at dusk – Anyone recognize these??? 🙂

Moonlight on the Avon

Moonlight on the Avon

After an immense breakfast the next morning (complete with vegetarian sausage!), I set out on a walk to Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, the home where Shakespeare’s wife was born & raised.  They have really beautiful sweet pea exhibits there during the summer that I’d seen last time, and so I wanted to return to visit them again.  From there I headed back into town (I did a LOT of walking that day) to visit some of the other Shakespeare houses.  I especially like New Place, which is the site where Shakespeare returned to live at the end of his life, after he’d finished writing and acting in London for many years (the house no longer exists but they know this is where it was, and it was also where he drew his last breath).  When I was here in 2012, there was an interesting and extensive archeological dig happening onsite at New Place, with labyrinths and pits and dirt everywhere; but this time, it had been filled completely in and was covered with a perfectly level green lawn.  I enjoyed standing on the site where his house had once stood and looking out at the exact view across the street that Shakespeare would’ve looked upon: the Guild Chapel, the schoolhouse where he attended classes as a boy, and the timber-framed Falcon Hotel.  I also especially like the gardens at New Place, with the old mulberry trees and the view through the flowers of the Royal Shakespeare Company theatre just down the street.

Anne Hathaway's Cottage under brilliant blue skies

Anne Hathaway’s Cottage under brilliant blue skies

View of the theatre peeking through the flowers in the New Place garden

View of the theatre peeking through the flowers in the New Place garden

Looking toward Guild Chapel through the sculptures in New Place garden

Looking toward Guild Chapel through the sculptures in New Place garden

The room where Shakespeare was born, at Shakespeare's Birthplace House

The room where Shakespeare was born, at Shakespeare’s Birthplace House

The view Shakespeare himself would have had from his final home site.

The view Shakespeare himself would have had from his final home site.

From there I headed back down a side street to the antiques store where I’d found a special silver charm there two years ago; I lost the charm after coming home, but after sifting through a few trays this time, I was able to find a replacement…not quite the same, but similar, and it felt nice to have it with me again.  I migrated towards Shakespeare’s Birthplace House and decided to go through it again; I’m glad I did, as there were new exhibits to see and new people to meet.  I spent the rest of the day just wandering and relaxing, buying some souvenir gifts, and visiting old haunts.  I admit to looking at more than a few real estate office window postings as I walked along that day, of apartments and businesses and country homes…ah, “perchance to dream.”

ONLY $827,580.00 - a bargain!

ONLY $827,580, a bargain!

The following day was Friday and I’d booked a trip ahead of time with a brand spanking new company called “Go Cotswolds,” for a day tour out southwest of Stratford to see this designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.  During my trip here two years ago I’d actually mapped out a route to bike from Stratford to the Cotswolds, but it rained so much then and many roads were flooded so I played it safe and didn’t go.  So I was pleasantly surprised to find this new company (again, on Twitter), and as it turned out I was their very first official (paying) customer!  When the owner Tom picked me up at the B&B that morning about 9:45, I learned I was to be the sole client that day, so I felt pretty special getting a personal tour on their first day out.

The Cotswolds are quite famous throughout the UK, and the towns throughout the region, all their houses built of the same honey-colored stone and many with storybook thatched roofs, do get their fair share of tourists.  It’s the region itself that is the draw rather than one specific attraction – the rolling hills dotted with sheep, the tranquil streams flowing through the quaint villages filled with lovely tea rooms, and the untouched-by-time sense of peacefulness that pervades the countryside. We made about 10 stops during our 8-hour day, getting out of the mini-bus to walk around some of the towns and see some of the sights (rookie mistake: I wore new shoes I hadn’t broken in completely, without any socks, so I had a few unwelcome souvenir blisters by the end of the day).  I was surprised at the end by the ring of Rollright Stones, like a worn-down mini-Stonehenge that I’d never heard of but enjoyed seeing.  I’m glad I took the whole day to explore the famous Cotswolds, even if it was a bit of a whirlwind outing.

Good view of the honey stone buildings that make up the Cotswolds - here, in Chipping Campden

Good view of the honey stone buildings that make up the Cotswolds – here, in Chipping Campden

The most perfect "chocolate box house"

The most perfect “chocolate box house” – can actual humans really live here?

Lavender is everywhere in the Cotswolds

Lavender is everywhere in the Cotswolds

The Rollright Stones

The Rollright Stones

Saturday was my last day in Stratford, and I made the most of it with a peaceful river cruise up and down the Avon, which I wasn’t able to do in 2012 due to the flooded waterway.  As I waited for the boat to show up at the mooring, I had a nice conversation with a very elderly German woman, despite the fact she didn’t speak any English at all; she did have an electronic translation device and through gestures and smiles and a lot of typing on her part, I learned she was there with a group from Germany for the whole week.  She was 84 years old and it was her first time to Stratford, but she too had been a Shakespeare fan her whole life – another testimonial to his worldwide reach and influence.  I sat next to a couple from Wales on the boat and treated them to free drinks with some coupons I had.  We even got to witness some boat races on the river that day as we sailed gently past the theatre, church, and butterfly farm.  (If it all sounds incredibly quaint, it is, it’s like a fairytale town in many ways…)

River cruise past the RSC theatre

River cruise past the RSC theatre

River cruise down the Avon

River cruise down the Avon

You simply can’t go to Stratford without attending at least one show at the Royal Shakespeare Company theatre (or at least I can’t), and I’d purchased my ticket for Two Gentleman of Verona months in advance as the main birthday gift to myself.  I was lucky actually because this was the opening preview night of the play and was my last night in Stratford, the only chance I’d have to see a production this trip.  I’d read the play a few months prior in my weekly Shakespeare reading group in Austin, and was eager to see the RSC version since this was the first time in 45 years that The Two Gentlemen of Verona had been performed in full production on the Royal Shakespeare Theatre stage.  (It’s not one of the more popular Shakespeare plays, has the smallest cast of any of the plays, and is generally recognized by many as perhaps his first-written work.)

View out upon the town centre from balcony of RSC theatre

View out upon the town centre from balcony of RSC theatre

A light rain began to fall just as I made my way from a pre-show dinner into the theatre and found my seat high up on the first row of the second balcony.  It was really a perfectly-located seat with a prime vantage point, and as I turned around I glanced down at the seat and drew a sharp breath at what I saw:

What?????!!!

What?????!!!

I was sitting in the seat of SIR PATRICK STEWART!!  Yes that Patrick Stewart – the one I share a birthday with, the one who makes it so, the one who is without question one of the preeminent Shakespearean actors of all time.  I’ve been an uber-fan of Patrick Stewart for over twenty years now – I’ve seen every movie, TV episode and play he’s ever done, I’m pretty sure.  This random seat selection bestowed upon me by the RSC ticket office was completely unplanned, but it felt like a sign, and I stood there for a good two minutes just staring at it.  Yes it may have just been a tribute seat given to him by the RSC in honor of his magnificentness (and probably generous theatre support on his part), OR – and I choose to believe this option – this is his actual designated seat that he sits in when he takes in a show.  I pointed at it while I gaped at the couple sitting behind me, explaining my awe: “Do you see what seat I’m sitting in??  Do you see that?  I can’t believe this.  Look, his name is right on it!  I can’t believe this.  I didn’t plan this.  Do you see that?” 

It may have been the best single moment of my entire three-week trip.  And after that, how could it not be a great last night in Stratford?  The set decoration of the play was fantastic and the real dog who played the canine character of Crab was a huge hit.  I continued the birthday tradition I set during my first visit two years ago by treating myself after the play to a heavenly sticky toffee pudding with vanilla ice cream, my self-proclaimed birthday cake without the candles.  It was a little bittersweet – both the pudding cake and the fact that I was celebrating alone, but I know how lucky I was to even be there and so I was grateful.

Set of "Two Gentlemen of Verona" inside the RSC

Set of “Two Gentlemen of Verona” inside the RSC

The world's best sticky toffee pudding.

The world’s best sticky toffee pudding.

The next morning – Sunday and my actual birthday – I set out early to catch the train to London for my last three days in England.  I was sad to leave Stratford-upon-Avon but I will be back again someday, of that I’m sure.  I’d actually really love to be there during Christmas one year, I hear it’s even more beautiful during the holidays, if that’s possible.  London is only a two-hour train ride south of Stratford, but it’s a whole other world unto itself, which is why I’ll save the details of those days for my last Tour de England post.  Stay tuned and thanks for reading!

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Tour de England 2014 – Week 2: Twenty-Nine Seconds in York

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“I am as hot as moulten lead, and as heavy too…I need no more weight than mine own bowels.” ~William Shakespeare (Henry IV, Part I, V, iii)

At the end of the last post I’d just finished watching the riders, team cars and team buses cross the starting line of the Tour de France Grand Départ in Leeds, England.  If you missed that post, you can read it here.  (And the first post in the Tour de England series describing my first week in Windsor, Surrey & Bath can be found here.)

Immediately after the police pushed back the street barriers in the Leeds city centre, I and tens of thousands of other people rushed the few blocks to the train station.  Northern Train Lines had assured me (and countless others) the day before that they were ready for the huge Tour crowds that would want to travel between all the start and finish towns (Leeds, Harrogate, York, Sheffield) on Days 1 and 2 of the race (which was my plan).  They said they would be adding additional, more frequent trains, and they pushed a special “Ride Rover” train ticket that would allow fans to see both starts and both finishes in all 4 of those towns on those days for a much reduced price (I bought one).  Seemed like a good idea at the time

I picked up my suitcase from the Left Luggage office at the station in a quick 10 minutes.  Yet by the time I rounded the corner to get in line to take the train to Harrogate, the queue had begun to snake outside into the overflow parking lot and beyond – WAY beyond.  Out-of-sight beyond.  I wheeled my suitcase into what would be my spot in line for the next hour, as we slowly inched our way around and around the outside line and then finally back into the station. 

Behind me in line was a nice family from Norway who had come to cheer for the lone Norwegian cyclist in the Tour, Alexander Kristoff.  We commiserated together as we were finally ushered onto a train only to then be made to wait another 45 minutes before departing – no one ever told us why or what we were waiting on.  However we still felt extremely lucky to be leaving after less than a two-hour wait, because as we pulled out of the station, we got a glimpse at what had to be the world’s longest train line in history – which by this time had formed literally several miles beyond the station borders.  (Remember, the riders were racing toward the finish in Harrogate on the road, and I highly doubt that many of those standing in line made it in time, despite five hours between the race start and finish.)

A short 20 minutes later we arrived in Harrogate, and I knew it would be mass chaos to try to find a spot anywhere near the finish line by that time (the riders were still probably 2.5 hours away).  I headed toward a very crowded supermarket to get a sandwich for lunch, but the shelves had been picked bare in a scene reminiscent of pre-hurricane hoarding (like the train lines, the stores had also underestimated the massive crowds that would overwhelm their resources).  I grabbed the last sad egg salad sandwich at the back of the case and headed down a side street several blocks down from the main city centre, then turned to migrate toward the finish line street.

The crowds were unbelievable.  I found a tiny spot of grass across the street from the award podium and sat on my suitcase to eat my sandwich.  A few blocks up by the actual finish, the crowds were probably 15-deep.  I migrated toward a spot behind one of the VIP seating areas but couldn’t get anywhere near the front and couldn’t see the actual finish – but the podium stage had a large TV screen on it and we could watch the race on that.

My sad vantage point of the Tour finish & podium in Harrogate, Stage 1.

My sad vantage point of the Tour finish & podium in Harrogate, Stage 1.

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At one point, when the riders were just a few miles down the road and nearing the finish, I discovered that if I stood on top of my suitcase, I could actually see the finish line and had a much better view.  However, after about only 10 seconds I was harshly tapped on the back by angry fans behind me who made it clear in no uncertain terms that they weren’t going to let me block their view, even though that view was extremely less-than-optimal.  I got pretty frustrated at that point – I was there before the people behind me, I’d gotten that spot, I’d traveled all the way from the US to see this sight, and if I had a suitcase-boosted view that they didn’t have, why shouldn’t I be free to use it??  But in the end I dejectedly decided to not start another near-riot and stood down, literally.

Turns out that even if we couldn’t see the race, the VIP area right in front of us was quite interesting while we were waiting for the riders to arrive.  I could see many pairs of feet directly in front of me as they sat on their very important bleachers.  One pair belonged to Prime Minister David Cameron, as he and his family were sitting there, with all of his bodyguards just inches in front of us, and the crowds kept yelling at him “Dave, Dave, give us a wave!”  Cheers erupted when he finally did.  The wife and child (and mother) of rider Mark Cavendish were also in those stands and walked past us at one point, quite famous in their own right in British cyclist circles and beyond…  And someone else told me they thought William and Kate and Harry were in that area right in front of us too as they waited for the riders, but I never saw them (until a few minutes later when they helped give out the awards on a royal podium stage).

Even though I couldn’t see the actual finish when the riders arrived, I was watching it on the screen across the street, so when British and crowd favorite Mark Cavendish crashed in spectacular fashion just a few yards from the finish, it was as if the entire crowd gasped and reeled in horror all at the same time.  We all stared at each other, strangers for the day but united in cycling fandom, in total disbelief at what had just happened.  I heard people crying.  Cavendish’s wife ran quickly from the stands in front of us to go find out if her husband was ok.  It was eerily quite until when, several minutes later, Mark wheeled across the line, helmet askew and holding one arm across his chest gingerly, the crowd around me gave him a massive cheer.  (His Tour ended after just that one day, he would not start the next morning.)

I waited to see a few of the podium prizes awarded by the royals, but knowing that the Harrogate train station was much smaller than the one in Leeds, decided to start back, as I still had to make my way to York that evening.  I’d waited too long – by the time I got in line for the York train, I was already extremely far back and settled in for another long wait.  This time it was 1.5 hours in line, and my line companions were American, from Boston.  By the time we finally got on the train, my feet were toast – I’d spent about 12 hours that day standing or walking (with about 50 pounds of luggage) and I was exhausted.  And to my chagrin I had to walk almost another mile from the York train station to my B&B, arriving after 7:00 that night and basically collapsing into the shower and then bed.

My spirited York B&B was a welcome sight after such a long day at the Tour.

My spirited York B&B was a welcome sight after such a long day at the Tour.

The Tour started at the York racehorse track the next morning for its second day in Yorkshire, and was due to ride through town during the neutral start; part of the course was just down the street from my B&B, so instead of trying to make my way to the actual start, I decided to be one of the road spectators along the course this time.  Plus, I was still exhausted from the day before and a short 5-minute walk down the road seemed pretty attractive.  I’d already decided that after standing in two of the world’s longest train lines the day before, I would not attempt to go to Sheffield this day to see the finish.  Seeing the depart out of York would be enough for me.

I left the B&B at 8:30 and was at my vantage point before the publicity caravan started to roll by about 9:15.  (Tour gripe:  I know it would’ve probably cost a lot of money to bring the entire regular Tour publicity caravan from France to England, but I really feel the British crowd was jipped out of the real caravan experience; there were only a handful of parade vehicles and none of them except the Yorkshire Tea float threw out any good swag gifts at all.)  I had a point right by the barriers next to one of the town’s ancient Roman wall towers, and would be able to see the riders as they came around the corner.   I met a nice couple next to me who lived there in York, and while we stood in our spots waiting for two more hours they gave me some pointers about what to do during my remaining days in the city. 

My York viewing point for TdF Stage 2.

My York viewing point for TdF Stage 2.

The Yorkshire cars in the publicity caravan.

The Yorkshire cars in the publicity caravan.

The crowds in York showed up in force!

The crowds in York showed up in force!

This is no secret to anyone who’s been to see one, but the Tour is very short-lived for its spectator-value.  It’s wonderful to be there as part of the experience and atmosphere, and to be able to say for decades to come “I was there,” but it really is all over in practically the blink of an eye.  Instead of taking pictures of the race this time, I took a video with my camera, and from start to end, from the time I could see the riders appear on the street to the time the last one passed us was 29 seconds.  Less than a half a minute!  And then it was over, just like that.  The team buses didn’t even roll through this time after the riders, due to York’s very narrow winding streets I guess, although the team cars did.

Hours standing in one spot for less than half a minute of payoff leaves one feeling slightly dejected after it’s over, but luckily I had 3 more days in York to look forward to.  I’d heard so much about this beautiful ancient city with its miles of medieval walls – everyone I’d told that I was going to York had said “Ooh you’ll love it there.”  So I set out to explore the city on probably what was its most crowded day ever, along with the thousands of other Tour fans there for the day. 

Awe-inspiring York Minster

Awe-inspiring York Minster

I had planned to go to the big fan park south of town to watch the Tour on the big screen TV, but after trekking halfway there I heard from a Tour Maker volunteer that the TV had stopped working and they couldn’t get it fixed.  That was extremely disappointing as I would’ve really enjoyed watching the race with a huge group of other fans; instead, I ended up finding a cycling-themed cafe in town with the race on TV inside, so I settled in to watch an hour or two there (and discovered a British milkshake is VERY different than an American one).  I was still very tired from the day before, so I then fought my way back through the extreme crowds in town back to my B&B to watch the finish of the stage.  I was so glad I was able to relax instead of fighting the train crowds and lines again to get to and from Sheffield.  I forgave myself for not sticking to my original plan and reminded myself to not set my expectations too high.

The next morning I took a very good and free (!) 2.5 hour town walking tour.  We saw the famous Shambles street (I think it’s a little overrated and very commercial), walked a short part of the town walls, and I learned a lot about the town that made me really appreciate its history. 

View of the Minster from part of the city walls.

View of the Minster from part of the city walls.

One of the "bars" or tower gate entrances into the ancient city.

One of the “bars” or tower gate entrances into the ancient city.

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Surviving section of Roman Wall from 300 AD

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Walking along the River Ouse through York.

Abbey ruins in Memorial Gardens

Abbey ruins in Memorial Gardens

Things were going great up until this point, but then I made a very bad decision.  I stopped at a deli called “Tarts & Tidbits” to get a sandwich (the name alone should have been my first warning, I know – tidbits of what exactly?); I picked a savory tomato scone and asked the young guy behind the counter to put some goat cheese on it.  I noticed he didn’t have gloves on after making several other sandwiches before mine, he hadn’t washed his hands in-between, and the goat cheese he grabbed was not in the refrigerated case – it was sitting on the counter behind him (for who knows how long?).  I hesitated when I saw all of this, but I went ahead and got the sandwich and took it back to the B&B to eat it while I watched the end of the Tour stage on TV.  I didn’t trust my gut, and so my gut rebelled.

It happened about three hours later.  I’d left the B&B again to go exchange some train tickets at the station (I cancelled the leg of my trip that would’ve taken me to Nottingham for a night, opting instead to stay an extra night in York), and on the way back I walked through Memorial Gardens.  I was taking pictures of some abbey ruins when the stomach gurgling started.  I began making my way back toward my B&B and made a bathroom pit stop on the way at a restaurant, but started feeling worse and worse.

By the time I got back to my room I was having what felt like a full-blown IBS issue, except I don’t have IBS.  So I’m pretty sure it was the germy goat cheese gone-bad that was the culprit.  I’ll spare you the gory details, but let’s just say for the next two full days I had a very rough time.  Every step I took or every seat I sat in resulted in pretty severe abdominal pain and pressure.  I bought a small portable drugstore of OTC remedies but they didn’t help much.  I hardly ate anything for those two days and my B&B owner was nice enough to make me scrambled eggs for dinner since that’s all I felt I could handle. 

Pretty much my worst fear when I travel is getting sick or hurt.  (It’s why I buy really good travel insurance every time.)  I kept telling myself this was nothing serious, and in the end it did end up subsiding on its own, but it had me pretty worried.  I tried the ignore-it method and refused to just sit around, venturing out to walk all three miles of the ancient York city walls step by tortured step – and I’m glad I did, the views are really amazing and once all the Tour crowds had left it was nice and peaceful up on the walls around the city – but it took a lot of effort.  I took the York Minster tour but declined to go all the way up to the top of the tower, there was no way I could climb all those stairs straight up with my troubles.  I did choose to fore-go an intended day-trip to see Castle Howard and stuck close to town and my B&B instead, so I ended up being very glad I decided to stay that extra day.

Walking the walls

Walking the walls

Fantastic surviving medieval towers

Fantastic surviving medieval towers

Thank goodness that by the time I boarded the train to start the third week of my trip, my intestinal woes had calmed down to a manageable level.  I still avoided dairy for many days after that (not even any milk in my tea), and I still haven’t looked at or eaten any goat cheese (previously a real favorite of mine) as of this writing (over a month later).   And all in all, if that was the worst that happened to me during a long three-week trip, I think I got off pretty lucky.  (I did also have this very weird eye-watering problem for almost the entire three weeks, where only the outside corner of my right eye watered non-stop the whole time, but it was more annoying than painful or worrying…and miraculously just stopped the minute I got on the plane to go home.)

So my time in York was a mixed bag – highs during the Tour but pretty low lows during my intestinal episode – but overall I really liked the city.  Next week’s post should see the end to my Tour de England, where I go back to Shakespeare country in Stratford-upon-Avon and end up with 3 non-tourist days in London.  Thanks for sticking with me through Weeks 1 and 2 so far!

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Tour de England 2014 – Week 2: Yorkshire and Le Tour de France

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“I pray you, do not push me…”  ~William Shakespeare (The Winter’s Tale, III, ii)

Welcome to Part 2 of my Tour de England series, accounting my recent three-week trip to the sceptered isle.  This week’s post is a sporting one, describing my time in the Yorkshire region of England to see and be part of the world’s biggest and most beautiful bike race, Le Tour de France.  If you missed Part 1 of the series last week (recounting my time in Windsor, Surrey & Bath), you can read it here.

On my 7th day in England, I boarded a train in Bath and settled in for the 3.5 hour journey north, to Yorkshire county and its biggest city of Leeds.  Home to famous windswept moors and dales, the largest county in England was a magnificent choice to host the first two days – the Grand Départ – of the 2014 Tour de France.  From there the race moved south, starting in Cambridge and finishing in London, before the teams then flew back to mainland France for the duration of the Tour.

Yorkshire county, England

Yorkshire county, England

Many people are surprised to find out that the Tour forays quite frequently into other countries, having started outside the French borders on at least 20 occasions now.  It’s a great opportunity for cycling fans of other lands to participate in the spectacle that is the Tour, and Yorkshire did not disappoint.  I’d seen the Tour in France in 2010, during a fantastic turn around the Alps region, but when I heard the announcement that the 2014 version was starting in England – well, let’s just say I started planning this vacation a long time ago, over a year in advance.  For an admitted Anglophile and a longtime fan of the Tour, this was a kickoff not to be missed.

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I arrived in Leeds on a Wednesday afternoon, with the Tour slated to start on  Saturday morning.  I wanted to give myself plenty of time to become familiar with the area and also have time to explore before the big day.  Yorkshire had been planning for this for over a year, and the Tour spirit was in overload from the moment I stepped off the train:  huge banners in the train station welcoming the Tour crowds, visitor centres overrun with Tour merchandise, and the color yellow everywhere you looked.  (For my non-cycling fan readers, yellow is the color of the jersey that the leader wears during the race and is the coveted final prize at the end for the overall winner.)

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Even King Richard got a yellow jersey.

The Tour itself is a virtual traveling city, with 2,500 people moving each day from stage to stage in different cities, including not just the teams and their management (and huge team buses) but all of the hundreds of journalists & media personnel, the staff who set up and take down all of the start and finish sets, course marshals, security & police personnel…it’s really quite amazing to see it all up close.  I’d seen it before in 2010 and I was in awe again this time to see the magnitude of this daily transient grand operation.  But the other thing this means is that any hotel room within several miles of the start/finish points is reserved well over a year in advance, and any that aren’t are accompanied by shockingly high nightly rates.

So I considered myself lucky to find a fairly nice secluded hotel 2.5 miles away from the city centre for not much more than my allotted nightly budget.  This meant however, negotiating the bus system from the train station to the nearest drop-off point and then walking almost another mile (uphill) to get to the hotel.  The outside of the hotel was beautiful, with lovely gardens, but unfortunately came with a bed that was a spring-laden miniature torture chamber (so no they did not get a great TripAdvisor review).  That night I ventured back down the hill for some adventurous Algerian food for dinner, and tried to get some sleep (but without much success).

The next morning I took the bus back into the city centre and examined the square where the race would kickoff on Saturday.  The Town Hall and Library were rolling out the yellow carpet, literally, for that evening’s team parade prior to the opening ceremonies.   I stood on the starting line where the cyclists would roll out on Saturday, and walked the length of the street where they would ride on their way out of town.  Leeds is apparently known for its elaborate shopping “arcades” or covered-lane mall-type areas, so I walked up and down all the pedestrian-only streets, not so much to shop but just to absorb the atmosphere.  Leeds is a big city anyway, but hosting the Tour meant extreme crowds everywhere you turned, so I felt I had to be extra-vigilant at all times.

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I headed back to the city centre to wander through some special cycling exhibits at the Leeds Public Library and then the Leeds Museum before grabbing an afternoon tea.  By this time I’d scoped out a good spot to watch the team parade on a grass planter and went to stake my spot around 4:00.  The parade wasn’t due to start until 6:00 but already a huge crowd was massing.  The English woman sitting next to me was a Tour Maker, one of the tens of thousands of Tour volunteers for the Grand Départ and very visible in her bright blue official shirt, and for the next several hours we formed an impromptu friendship (as one must do, especially for spot-saving when one has to run to the loo).

The team parade was great!  All of the 198 cyclists from all 22 teams rode past us at a relaxed, leisurely pace, followed by their team cars, before continuing onto the coliseum up the hill for the evening ceremony events.  I had contemplated going to the opening ceremony but tickets were about $85 for just the cheap seats, and I figured I could see all of them anyway during the two-hour parade.  Some of the cyclists were taking pictures of their teammates with their phones while they rode, others were waving to the fans, and of course the crowd favorites were treated to huge unending cheers all along the parade route.  Marcel Kittel’s hair was in perfect form of course and got its own cheers.

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One of my favorite teams, Orica Greenedge from Australia.

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The crowd favorite Team Sky & defending Tour champion Chris Froome.

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British sprinter & crowd favorite Mark Cavendish

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Team selfies & Marcel Kittel’s perfect hair

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Shut Up Legs

The next morning I decided to take the train for a day trip to Harrogate, the finishing town for the first day of racing the following day.  Even though I would be going back to Harrogate on Saturday to see the finish, I knew it would be extremely crowded and impossible to really move around or see the town like it would be if I went a day ahead.  And I’d heard Harrogate was really lovely so I wanted to take that time to see it.  I’m glad I did!  (If I haven’t mentioned yet how much I love England’s train system, let me do so now – it’s really a marvel and so easy to get around…except when it’s not, which I’ll cover a little later.)

Some of the green Yorkshire hills between Leeds & Harrogate

Some of the green Yorkshire hills between Leeds & Harrogate, as seen from my train window.

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It was a 1.5 mile walk from my hotel to the Burley Park station north of Leeds, but a short 30 minute train ride to Harrogate, (for what would take the cyclists 5 hours the next day to get there on a long roundabout loop) and when I arrived I was even more impressed with the Tour spirit that I saw in this much smaller quaint town (72,000 people compared to Leeds’ 750,000).  There were yellow bikes displayed EVERYWHERE!  Restaurants, hotels, offices, pubs – every single house and place of business had a sign or a bike or something displayed related to the Tour.  And thousands of feet of bunting strung up everywhere, made up of little baby knitted cycling jerseys.  And a huge Fan Park with big screen TVs and cycling history exhibits.  And trees carved into Tour de France works of art.  Fantastic effort by Yorkshire, chapeau!

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Sir Bradley Wiggins, 2012 Tour winner & Olympic champion but not chosen by his team for this year’s race, was missed by his British fans.

After I got a pretty good drenching from a brief British bout of rain (of course this happened right after I lost my umbrella but before I could dart to buy a new one), I met up briefly with a contact who works for French TV and the Tour.  He’s a retired French pro cyclist but now is the one who calls all the TV shots for what is broadcast to the rest of the world covering the Tour.  He also owns the travel company with which I traveled in 2010 to see the Tour then, so I’d met him before and had stayed in touch a little over the past few years.

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FranceTVsport truck with it’s huge telescoping TV screen

He agreed to meet up in Harrogate to say hi and was nice enough to take me behind the crowd barriers to give me a brief tour of the inside of the FranceTV media truck where he works, as well as the other broadcast stations where sports commentators from around the world sit and call the shots for their home telecasts.  He also walked me over to the NBC American broadcast truck; he knows Paul Sherwen and Bob Roll so he introduced me as they walked out and we chatted for a few minutes, which was great!  I was super surprised to see recently-retired American Christian VandeVelde also walk out a minute later (I didn’t know then he’d been hired for the commentating team!) so I met him too.  Actually I’d met Bob Roll once before in 2010 when he was broadcasting then and he signed my Texas flag, which I reminded him of, but it was great to meet and talk with him again.

NBC Sports Network broadcast truck

NBC Sports Network broadcast truck

After another afternoon tea on the sidewalk of a Harrogate cafe and a stroll around the shop-lined streets to scope out where I thought I could watch the finish the next day, I boarded the train back to Leeds.  That evening I ate in a little cafe run by a Romanian couple and had a nice time chatting with the wife about how they found themselves in Leeds, England of all places.  I was continually struck during my entire time in England about the diversity of peoples you find nearly everywhere in the country, from all over the world.

I knew the next morning would be an early one.  Foregoing a free breakfast at the hotel, I was standing outside waiting for a taxi at 6:45 AM to take me to the train station, where I dropped off my luggage at a holding area and then walked the few blocks back up to the city centre where the Tour would start.  By 7:15 AM I had found a spot right against the barrier on the sidewalk of the main street, right at the corner where the riders would turn in to go sign in on the race podium before heading back out to line up for the start, which was about 50 yards up the street.  It was a primo location…but also a receptacle of back-aching pain.  The race wouldn’t start until 11:00 AM, which meant 4 hours of standing in one very crowded, very small spot of concrete.  Many people around me had been there since 6:00 AM or earlier to get a good spot.  It takes a serious fan to queue for a Tour de France viewing location!

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My vantage point of the sign-in podium on a rainy morning.

Standing right next to me were a father-son pair from Lincolnshire who’d made the trip to Leeds and who were among the many Team Sky superfans there to support their team.  They were very nice and agreed to save my spot when, around 9:30, I decided I should try to find a bathroom.  A much-scaled-down version of the publicity caravan had already passed by on the route, but the riders weren’t due to show up until 10:00.  Leeds did a great job of organizing the Grand Départ with one notable exception:  NO PUBLIC TOILETS.  Anywhere.  What the heck Leeds???  I was forced to run several blocks over to a mall, then up 4 escalator flights to a pay-toilet, and by the time I sprinted back, it had been about 25 minutes.  By this time the start-line crowds were 10-deep or more on both sides and crammed in like sardines.  I squeezed and pushed my way back through to my spot, which now was half the tiny patch of concrete it was before, and was actually boo’d by those I bypassed…the father-son companions had genuinely-scared looks on their faces as I professed many thank you’s to them, telling me “You almost caused a riot, everyone was yelling at us for not moving your backpack and letting someone else in your spot!”  There was a particularly mean-spirited very short grandmotherly woman standing right behind me who shot dagger looks at me the rest of the morning and kept shoving me into the barrier (which I thought was very un-English of her).  So this begs the question:  how does everyone else do it, how do they stand there for hours upon hours without bathroom breaks, and especially after drinking all that TEA?  Adult diapers?  Severe self-dehydration starting the day before?  I still don’t get it.

My favorite souvenir from the Publicity Caravan's prize buckets.

My favorite souvenir from the Publicity Caravan’s prize buckets.

Well anyway, at 10:00 all the riders started rolling up to sign in and do interviews on the grandstand, still in relaxed and festive moods.  And then they started lining up right in front of me in the Neutral Zone area, awaiting the 11:00 rollout.  The father-son duo went gaga when Team Sky & British defending Tour champion Chris Froome stopped right in front of us to make some bike adjustments, and it was fun to see their pure joy reaction at getting a little smile from him when they shouted “Good luck out there Chris!”  I watched British sprinter-star & stage-winner favorite for that day Mark Cavendish give an interview about two feet in front of me, multiple microphones thrust in his face, none of us knowing that it would be his first and, sadly, last day of this year’s Tour (more on that later).  I could’ve reached out and touched controversial Alberto Contador as he cleaned and twisted his bright yellow sunglasses.  I could hear Fabian Cancellara laughing as he joked (in Fabianese) with the riders sitting next to him. 

The riders start to appear for the sign-in.

The riders start to appear for the sign-in.

Canadian champion Svein Tuft

Canadian champion Svein Tuft

One of my favorite riders, Welshman Geraint Thomas (on R in white sunglasses)

One of my favorite riders, Welshman Geraint Thomas (on R in white sunglasses)

Cavendish rolls up to sign in and talk with fans

Cavendish rolls up to sign in and talk with fans

Chris Froome tweaks his bike computer

Chris Froome tweaks his bike computer

Cavendish conducting some last minute interviews

Cavendish conducting some last minute interviews

Cancellara shoots the breeze with Frank Schleck

Cancellara shoots the breeze with Frank Schleck

The rider on the right just wants to get going already...

The rider on the right just wants to get going already…

Alberto Contador in his unmissable neon yellow-green kit.

Alberto Contador in his unmissable neon yellow-green kit.

Cycling fans love cycling because you can get that close to your favorite riders – at the start, the finish, on the rest days, and on all the roads in-between.  It’s a true fan’s sport, cycling, with so many nations represented and so many different dramas going on within the race.  Yes it’s had its obvious struggles and challenges and it’s been tough to not get disheartened over the years, but cycling is changing, and the fans know this, so they stick with it, even if that means standing in one spot for hours until you can no longer feel your feet or lower spine.

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The official start line for the Grand Départ

I’d never been right on the start line of any Tour stage before, much less the Grand Départ, and the atmosphere was absolutely buzzing.  I’ve heard that there were 280,000 people crammed into that start area with me that morning in Leeds – it seemed like more.  With the last rider signed in, the final countdown started and with a cacophony of pedal clips they were off, slowly making their way through the massive crowds and into the distance to begin their 3-week adventure/sufferfest.  We cheered them off and then cheered some more as each multimillion dollar team bus rolled through the start line after them, those impeccable imposing team refuges that harbor the riders before and after each stage and transport them around the Tour.  The bus that got the biggest cheer though wasn’t Team Sky’s shiny black “Death Star” – nope, it was the tiny little cartoonish camper van bus at the back of the pack, belonging to the wildcard team NetApp-Endura, who had never been to the Tour before and whose entire team budget is a meager one-eighth that of the juggernaut Team Sky.  With barely any windows and no chance of getting stuck under a finish line gantry, they became immediate crowd favorites for their underdog status.

The riders were on their way to Harrogate that day for the finish, and so was I.  But this blog post is already crazy long so I’ll continue the tale in the next entry.  Stay tuned to hear about the world’s longest train lines and glimpses of royalty (specifically, their feet).  More Tour de France up-close-and-personal next time!

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

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