Romans, Writers and Reflections

September 24 – Chichester to Sidmouth

A motoring day today as we visited two interesting places, with a lot of driving in between, which wasn’t interesting at all. So today was really just time spent at a couple of sites and then a whole lot of transit time along a motorway. So…not a whole lot to report!

First stop was Fishbourne Roman Palace, just outside Chichester. This was a really interesting place to visit, although there wasn’t a palace there to see anymore. In 1960, workmen were operating heavy machinery, digging water main trenches and they dug up some Roman remains. This was investigated further and lo and behold, they discovered the remains of a Roman Palace. It dates from 75AD and when complete, spanned a quarter of a million square feet. Huge! There are remains of the north, west and east wings still there, but the village of Fishbourne was built on top of the south wing, so there are roads and houses over the top of that, so not much is known about it. It’s not known for sure who owned it, but the thinking is it was possibly Tiberius Claudius Togidubnus, whose job it was to look after Rome’s interests in Britain.  It’s possible the palace was built at the Emperor’s expense, in recognition of Tiberius’ faithful support.  Apart from a museum, showing information about the excavation and artefacts, all that’s left to see are the mosaic floors from the palace. This was still fascinating though because they are in situ. This is what makes it such a significant Roman site. The mosaics that are still in place, remain exactly where they were at the time of the palace’s occupation. There were viewing walkways alongside the mosaics, so we walked around the vast area, all indoors, which was good because it was pouring rain outside. After doing  a lot of reading in the museum, we walked around looking down at the mosaics and imagining the rooms that would have been in place. If your job was to create mosaics at that time, I reckon you were on a winner of a business opportunity! A fiddly job but you’d never be short of business!

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The under floor heating system. Fires sent warm air along the channels, under the floor, that circulated around the columns, warming the room

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I couldn’t believe a mosaic floor this complete has survived so long under ground

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From there we headed off to the village of Chawton, via the motorway. Very good for Steve the driver, because it’s a case of pointing the car along that super highway and zooming with the other traffic, a lot easier than weaving a van around country lanes. Motorways for me though…dullsville! Fast, nothing to see, no real scenery and just a means of commute. A mega adjustment after the scenery and silence of the bikes.

The village of Chawton was home to Jane Austen and I really wanted to visit the house where she actually lived and wrote. Chawton was a lovely little village with thatched cottages and surrounded by countryside and it’s where Jane Austen lived with her sister and mother after Mr Austen died. The Austen women were in pretty dire financial straits after the death of Mr Austen because, being women at that time, they were completely dependent on the men of the family for their income. Jane’s brother Edward though, came to the rescue with the cottage in Chawton, which the Austen women were able to live in rent free. The house is now considered to be the most treasured Austen site in the world. Jane lived there for the last eight years of her life and those were her most prolific writing years. It was in the house in Chawton that she wrote all her major works, such as Emma, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion. The sun came out briefly while we were there, so we walked through the house and garden and then took a stroll through the village. Years ago, we visited Louisa May Alcott’s house (she of Little Women) in Massachusetts and it was really quite special to see the house she wrote in, her writing desk and the rooms that she based her stories on. Today was another special visit, to see where such a wonderful writer sat and I think the most memorable thing I saw, was her little writing table. Just a small, round table, the size you might sit a cup of tea on beside a chair, which is where she sat with quill and ink and penned her timeless stories. 

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Jane Austen’s house
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It sat on a corner at the end of the village

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Jane’s donkey cart. She and her sister Cassandra would walk around the village and fields, but when going into the village of Alton for shopping, they would take this little donkey cart.
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Jane and her sister were very close and still chose to share this little bedroom

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The Dining Parlour, where Jane would sit each morning, by the window and write
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Jane’s little writing table
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A pretty little village
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Chawton House, where her brother Edward lived. Jane called it the “Great House”
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St. Nicholas Church, where the family would go and where Jane’s mother and sister are buried

Those were the two events of the day. In between was just time spent in the van zooming from one place to the next. Motorway monotony! What that time did do though, was give me pause for thought on the last six months. Today was our first full day in the van and the first day of leaving our loaded bike travel behind us. As we zoomed along, it got me reflecting on our time on the bikes, what I’ve learned and thoughts about our travels. This is what went through my mind, a list of my reflections and musings:

  1. We may not hear it enough and the news reports may be skewed in the opposite direction, but we can remember that the world is full of lovely, friendly, caring, helpful, welcoming people and we have been lucky enough to meet many of them every day.
  2. The journey should be as prized as the destination. Before we started travelling by bike, we would focus on where we were going and “the place” became the focus. We would either drive and focus on getting to “the place” or we would fly to a particular place and it was that destination that became the focus of the travel. Slow travel on the bikes has helped us appreciate just what the journey gives us. The destination is just the icing on the cake because everything we got to see and experience along the way became equally, or sometimes more, enjoyable, memorable and special than the destination itself. We have slow travel to thank for teaching us that. It’s not about getting somewhere, it’s about the experiences along the way. 
  3. Bugs really hurt when they collide with a human face at speed.
  4. Notice the small things around us. Scenery and sights can have the most amazing aspects to them, that we might miss, if we don’t take time to notice the small things. Sometimes it’s just colour, like the green that can be so green, or the colour of a tree’s bark or the patchwork of a landscape. If we’re in a car we often whizz past things and don’t get to see the environment up close, so we only see the big picture. Take time to notice the little things, because the little things can be amazing. 
  5. There’s always going be hills. The thing about hills though, they have a top and it can be reached. How? Slowly, bit by bit. Rather than feel that sense of dread at the huge, hard, seemingly insurmountable challenge ahead, just think of tackling it slowIy, a bit at a time and gradually, up we go and eventually, we get to the top and that’s always where the reward is, because the view is amazing. I have often thought, as we slog up hills, that they are a metaphor for life. We will always have challenges in front of us, that we have to scale or conquer. When we only look at those challenges as a whole, they can seem big and daunting, but if we tackle them bit by bit, with small success on top of small success, those challenges break down into something that seems a lot more manageable and we can get there in the end. There will always be hills, but we can get over them.
  6. Weather can be a real pain. Wind is a pain. Rain can be a pain. Wind and rain is no fun at all. But…no matter how wet or windblown or cold, it’s temporary and we will be warm and dry again and there will be a cup of tea at the end of the day. So, just get on with it, get over it, enjoy the experience and know that there will be comfort again somewhere, eventually. 
  7. Things can feel really hard sometimes. Hills, weather, discomfort, but we are always tougher than we think we are. Just when it feels like there’s nothing left in the tank, we can find just a little bit more. We’re often tougher than we think and stronger than we feel.
  8. Always take the time to meet people, stop and talk to people and engage with strangers, even if we can’t speak their language. Always try and learn a bit of language in different countries, but don’t let a lack of language stop us from interacting with people, because we found that people are kind and gracious and patient and friendly and will talk away, even knowing we can’t really communicate. That isn’t a barrier to their friendliness and needn’t be a barrier to ours. 
  9. Look for the gems of places. Look for the unheralded, “under the radar” places because they’re often the little gems. Time and again it’s been the towns and cities we didn’t know about or stumbled upon that have been the most memorable, special or lovely places and have beaten hands down, the more “famous” or known tourist destinations. Many times, the better known places have not been on our list of favourite places. We have been underwhelmed by places, like Vienna, happy to leave places, like Amsterdam and Dublin but the places we hadn’t known much about, like Ljubljana in Slovenia, Haarlem in The Netherlands, Ulm in Germany or Pula in Croatia were absolutely magic, yet they don’t top lists of destinations. Someone might say, “I’m saving for a trip to Vienna” but probably not saying, “I’m planning my trip of a lifetime to Ulm.” Not, of course, that there’s anything wrong with a trip of a lifetime to Vienna, but we found the places we really loved were the smaller places, the less known places, the less advertised places, that were truly special. Seek those out. Look beyond the hyped destinations to the little hidden gems. 
  10. Don’t ket the unknown or the untried be a barrier to experiences. When I think back to our first cycle tour in 2015, which along with this one now, gives us the grand total of two cycle tours, I’m amazed we did it and amazed we did it again. When we started cycle touring we had never done it before, I’d barely ridden a bike since childhood, we didn’t plan, we didn’t train or prepare, we just bought our bikes and gear, flew to Portugal and started pedalling. Would I recommend being that clueless? No, maybe not. But we did it and here we are doing it again and it’s been amazing. Having zero experience with what we were attempting, wasn’t a barrier and needn’t be a barrier. Just give it a go. Try something, even if it’s completely new. Make mistakes but learn as you go. Just get started. That’s all we did. I thought today how much smoother things went for us this time around. Did we still make mistakes? YES! Did we still get lost, take wrong turns, make less than smart decisions? YES, YES and YES! Did it matter in the end? Nope. We got better as we went. We started out completely clueless, inexperienced and set off to places unknown. A bit daunting? Yes again. Did it stop us? No it didn’t. The unknown doesn’t have to be a block. Inexperience doesn’t have to be a barrier. I reflected today, how far we’d come, not in kilometres, but in experience and growth in many ways. Want to try something new that seems big and daunting? Give it a go. Do it anyway. See Number 7…we’re tougher than we think we are. We can do more than we believe we can. We just need to start.

Well, that was the day. A visit to a couple of interesting places that I’m glad we had the chance to get to. I’ll give the van that today, it at least enabled us to get around places that were far apart. I’ll take the motorway monotony I guess, for what it delivered in the end. Time to sit back, think and reflect on our travels was time well spent too. A reminder again, of what we’ve done, how lucky we are, how grateful we are and what an amazing journey we have been on, with our trusty bicycles. But…a journey we are still on, even though those bikes are having a rest for our last week. The journey continues. There’s still tomorrow!

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