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Chasing Your Hobby Abroad

by Doug Kephart

I would like to thank all my friends for such a wonderful time while on holiday in the U.K., back in July of '93. Yes, I know it was last year [originally published 1994]; I am still a bit behind! In no way could my brother and I have run such a tight schedule without the help of such friends. In fact it nearly did us in, by the time I got home I was shattered, and ready for a vacation! Now that is what I call a successful trip!

Not that one would have noticed, but this trip had been in planning for quite some time. This was necessary as I could only obtain ten days off from work, and for that I had to give them six months advance notice (the sods!). Another day was gained by incorporating July 4th (hint: our Independence Day). So by swapping shifts with a co-worker (I work second shift) I was able to depart Friday evening, the 2nd, and not return till Monday the 19th. This gave three whole weekends in the U.K.

Things got off to a rather bad start before I had even left. I worked my normal second shift Thursday, then stumbled in bright and early at 6:00 a.m. Friday to work a dayshift. Plan was that after work I would pack some last minute items, and have a snooze before the overnight flight. Fortunately dayshift never does a bit of work (second shift carries the load) so it was a relatively easy, if a bit fuzzy, day. Which was just as well, as I had promised someone a Douglas centerstand, which by working through the night and into the next morning, had only just finished Thursday before appearing for work!

I think they must have appreciated my valuable observations on dayshift, as I had two offers for in-flight insurance coverage. Back home, last minute packing turned into last minute chaos, and I never did get to take a nap. Sometime during this I was baking the centerstand in the oven so the paint would dry in time and not stick to my clothes. It seemed in no time, we had to be off to the airport.

Guess who set off the metal detector? The attendant was trying to describe something on the X-ray tube, and gesticulated international sign language for Douglas centerstand. After handing it over they examined it for explosive devices. Not finding any, they returned it with the comment "Well I guess you can't take out a plane with that." to which I replied "Not unless I clocked the pilot over the head with it". They must have heard that one before, as they did not even smile. (A comment that probably get me arrested at security in these post 9/11 days.)

Can not say I got much rest in flight, being too cramped, even for my small size, in coach to sleep. We had three infants on board, they were not sleeping either! They also worked in shifts, wailing.

Not much trouble at Heathrow, collected the car, a Renault Clio, and by ten-ish was on my way to Aberystwyth, Wales. I had to go there, as the first week I was attending a Milling Symposium (wind and watermills) at the University of Aberystwyth. Stopping for lunch I tried some chicken curry, which looked harmless enough. What I did not realize was how incredibly hot it was! ! It vaporized the slight cold I was developing, and made me break out in a sweat. union jack

Now for someone from the States, driving in the U.K. is very different, and I do not mean just driving on the opposite side of the road. First you have to figure out the system, who has the right of way. Unlike the States where everybody works on the "I" plan, ("I" have the right of way, also known as the 'me first' system.) Then you have to get use to driving quickly on narrow roads with poor lines of sight. Either that or you feel like a clod with a string of cars backed up behind you, looking for a lay-by to hide in. Some of these turned out to be reserved for buses or police, oh well! It is hard to get use to the fact that people will not intentionally pull out in front of you. Which is why I am so dependent on a good line of sight. They also seemed most tolerant of ignoramuses on the road, I mean no one pulled out a gun and took a shot at us. Back home, the other driver will make eye contact, pause till you get a little closer, and then pull out in front of you, all the while staring right at you! (Or through you, I suppose.)

Driving in England started off well enough, as I was using the M4 all the way to Wales, then struck north to the A40. Somewhere I lost the A40 and ended up on a very minor road (B4558 I found out later) that followed a canal (Monmouthshire and Brecon). So in truth it was a bit of a sudden change from the motorway! The road alarmingly (for me) got narrower until it was reduced to a single track; at which state it stayed for about several miles.

It could have been rather scenic if one were not spending their first day driving in a foreign country, due at a place 236 miles away by early evening to register, lost (well sort of, I figured we were headed in the right general direction; Brecon), on a one lane road half up an embankment in a queue trying to get past logging lorries; and while waiting there for the lorry to peel the side off this little French tin I rented, wondering why I opted for the damage wavier (well because I'm cheap!). I would have sworn it would never have fit, but I got past the various oncoming traffic (observing the British system) without rubbing the tin on the oncoming vehicles, or the paint off the on the surrounding flora (gorse?).

Actually this was a similar experience to the last time on holiday, back in 1988, when I ventured into Wales, and promptly got lost.

After forever, I was dumped out in Brecon, and found my way to the A470. I followed that on up through Builth Wells, thence Rhayader and on up to Llangurig (very scenic bit of road worthy of a more casual drive) to the A44 which took me west into Aberystwyth.

Aberystwyth has this clever little road trap for the unwary, you enter the town on the main road, but a system of one-way streets has you going round and round in circles in town. After a few laps I was spat out on the Promenade, which, though not quite were I wanted to be, made a change of scenery from circling town. I crawled along the Promenade north, turned west at the cliff, and via some back streets, edged my way to the main road north out of town without getting sucked into the in-town vortex again. The collage campus was just up the hill from town. Actually, once one got use to it, there were plenty of different routes to chose, and Aberystwyth did not seem such a big town after all. You may gather I am not a town dweller.

I checked in, attended the welcoming dinner, but by 8:00pm during the entertainment I had to call it a night as it had seemed ages since I last had some sleep! Which in strait linear time would have been thirty three hours, with possibly a few catnaps in flight, though I sure don't remember them! I also had very little sleep, and an disrupted schedule the few previous days which did not help matters much. All this was the prelude to probably one of the worst cases of jet lag known to mankind.

Despite the previous lack of sleep, my internal clock said rise and shine at four a.m.! So as to re-adjust to the new time zone as quickly as possible, I kept the shades drawn and stayed in bed till seven thirty. This I did every day, and retired at a reasonable time most every night, (except for one or two occasions!) However, at mid-morning, I would become drowsy, a state which would last for an hour. After two weeks, the only improvement I affected was to gradually shift this period of drowsiness to late afternoon! This was in contrast to my last holiday where I adjusted completely the first day, and thought jet lag was a myth.

During the days of scheduled excursions our group ranged over a good portion of Wales, southwest to Cardigan, northwest to Welshpool. The coach driver knew no fear as to where to hurl such a large vehicle, no lane was too small, no area too tight. Solid objects passed mere inches outside my window, leaves and portions of branches fell in the open skylights, it was a wild ride! I was most impressed, I had a hard enough time finding enough road for my little truffle tin, what with narrow roads made even more so with parked cars. We did not collide with anything, how I know not.

On days of presentations that I was not interested in, I took the car and did some exploring of my own. First, right in Aberystwyth is the Vale of Rheidol Railway, which I rode to Devils Bridge. I believe they are going to clear some brush from the right of way, which would do much to open up some spectacular views into the valley floor far below. In my ignorance, I decided to walk the path at Devils Bridge, which introduced me to another British passion, steps! Steps three hundred feet down, and three hundred feet back up! These are no ordinary steps either, we are talking strenuous, ligament stretching, thirteen inch flights! I almost died. Second interesting thing about the U.K., you can find a pub just about anywhere you may be, why there was one directly across the road from where I emerged exhausted from walking hell! Perhaps I was not the first tourist nearly to perish on that trail. Well, I missed my train and had to wait for the next one anyway, might as well be refreshed!

I also rode the Welshpool and Llanfair R.R., and the Ffestiniog R.R.. On the way back I stopped at Harlech Castle and climbed yet more steps to the top of the bluff, only to find you could drive up to the back side and walk straight in at a second entrance!

Now the Welsh are very friendly, once they find out you are not English. They go to great lengths to impress upon you that theirs is a separate country. Show the flag a lot, use difficult pronunciations a lot, and ply you with WELSH cakes at any opportunity. Now at Felin Crewi there was a sign not to feed the animals as well as a plaque in memory of their pet pony who had died a painful gastrointestinal death from being fed too many welsh cakes by the tourists, which struck me as quite ironic! I felt kindred sympathy for that departed pony.

Just prior to this trip I had been in contact with Taff, of vintage motorcycle horn renown. Not only did he fix me up with a horn for my 1936 Aero Douglas, but with all kinds information on interesting sites to visit, local newspapers, and some basic instruction on how not to murder the Welsh language and pronunciation, which I did anyway. Far better than any tourist bureau would have done.

Went to visit the owner of a T35 Douglas in Aberystwyth, once we got talking, and that bottle of wine got opened... well it was quite late when I left there! Then I heard about the more interesting side of Welsh history, like the Sons of Glendower Real-Estate Brokers!

Saturday with the symposium over, I set off after breakfast for the London Douglas Motor Cycle Club (LDMCC) Annual Rally at Bainton, running in and out of rain squalls all the way. I arrived quarter past two, just in time to see everybody gather to set off for the road run, and the rain to start again! I waited to watch all the machines off, hopped back in the car and went in search of a B&B. Which proved quite difficult till I went up to Banbury. Back at the field people were still arriving and the rain stopped.

Despite the threat of more rain, I thought quite a number of people turned up. Time to renew old acquaintances, and make new ones.

One member had on display some of his developmental engine work for a 450cc Mk Douglas short circuit racer, as well as some bits and pieces that failed the track test! Some rather good ideas there.

There was quite an amusing incident that evening involving push starting a machine. The reluctant machine finally came to life causing the pushie to fall nearly prostrate on the ground. This could have been injurious but the individual found a particularly soft spot in the pasture to land, let's just say no one wanted to shake his hand afterward! Probably not the first time this has occurred. The cows had not long ceded their pasture.

Another member was there with his rotary plus Douglas special (featured in Classic Bike), it required several shots of antihistamine to get it's breath. We both like to tinker with metal working machinery, it is a pity really that I only get to see him every five years.

Various Club committee members I'd met last time, great was there concern for my well being. In fact most everyone had a kind word to say. I finally got to meet Malcolm (the intrepid chef of the Bainton burger); and our LDMCC archivist, who had a wonderful parcel of New ConRod magazine (NCR) back issues for me. Other members also contributed some more back issues to my collection. The NCR Editor also gave me a current issue, as my copy was probably just arriving back home. I should have read it there and then, as unbeknown to me, I had been recruited (and simultaneously uncovered) as an accessory to the Malcomgate conspiracy! Oh well, ignorance is bliss! A small party was still going on late into the night when I left for my own digs (I do not camp if there is a place with hot running water within 200 miles.)

Sunday was quite nice weather, with more people turning up all the time. Browsing through the jumble was nearly a full time occupation. Plenty of breaks though to meet new people, people whom, up to that time were only names in the NCR. In fact, I would walk the circuit and get involved in a conversation; when next I looked around more stalls had sprung up to be investigated! Being a veteran of the big antique car fall swap meet at Hershey, PA, I am a pro at the technique of walking past a stall and scanning it instantly for promising bits. These usually reside tucked under the back of the car, or right in the boot. Upon inquiry it can be found the desirable item is not for sale, as they had only just bought it! Like radar, this scanning tends to miss things up close and low, my excuse for missing things sitting at the front of the table!

I do not doubt that very shortly one could assemble a nearly complete Mk of sorts from bits collected around the jumble. Unfortunately I was not looking for Mk bits, the bits I sought proved more elusive.

Still there was the chance to stock up on regalia items, and harass the Pre-War Spares emporium (weren't allowed a spot in the tent, were we?). After scouring the stalls all morning for seat springs for my Aero, I find they have been concealing from me the fact that the Pre-War Spares had new sets made. This was very naughty of them.

More NCRs arrived courtesy of a club member. In my turn, I had agreed to collect a set of Douglas Dragonfly forks on behalf of someone else. Fortunately, as it turned out, I did not have to transport them all the way back home, they are quite bulky and heavy.

Another member offered the use of his Mk for the gymkhana, then bravely volunteered his daughter as pillion passenger. Somehow I (unconsciously I'm sure) contrived to miss the start, thus sparing myself from certain embarrassment. The last time I rode my Mk3 in a gymkhana like event I nearly fell off, though I still maintain it was due to spontaneous loose headstock bearing syndrome!

Also I was able to do a brief bit of research on current usage of the prewar o.h.v. engines. Not as much as I would have like, but a start none the less. All in all, quite a successful weekend; but I had to be off early to meet up with my brother in Stourton, west of Birmingham. I did stay long enough to see the awards presented.

The timing was perfect, I pulled in the drive at Stourton Castle, just as my brother and company were pulling out to go to dinner! Another minute and I would have missed them, not to mention dinner!

The next day we had arranged to met LDMCC member that I had been corresponding with in Bridgenorth at the Severn Valley Railway. We were supposed to meet in the snack bar, prior to riding the train. We waited and waited, but no Allen. Finally as the time approached, we went ahead and got tickets and prepared to board the train. The ticket agent was there to flag off the engine. At this moment a fellow came out of another bar/pub at the end of the station and approached the ticket agent and us. As this bloke was clutching an NCR, I knew it must be Allen, who I had never actually met before. He asked the ticket agent if he had seen two Americans about, to which I replied on behalf of the agent "yes, they are here" or something to that effect. Misunderstanding this he turned to look in the station, and I had to hastily add: "No, no, here, right here, we are who you are looking for!" He did not seem entirely convinced at first, but we held the train till he could get a ticket anyway!

Unfortunately due to talking and looking at photos I did not notice much of the train ride! It turns out we both have an interest in Austin Sevens - he has one and I wish I had one. We arrived at Kidderminster, where Allen was prepared to pay up on the pint he owed me for a past favor. And here is where I have a shocking confession to make, I had been feeling poorly since the previous day, and had to let Allen off the hook as I had no wish to antagonize my stomach. It galled me to do so, by which you can judge the serious of my discomfort! Allen and my brother went off to explore Kidderminster, whilst I was content just to sit on a bench in the sun, and read the current NCR. It was then I discovered belatedly my role in the Malcomgate conspiracy. Perhaps I had a closer escape then I'd realized, after all Malcom did personally fix me up a rally burger himself, was it a warning, an attempt to silence me, had he read something I had not???

Actually I think it was some clever trick on Allen's behalf to get out of buying a pint, but damned if I can figure out how he did it! [Postscript: Malcomgate only makes sense to those in the LDMCC at the time, reading the events as they developed (or were created!) in the NCR. And I am not sure it made complete sense even then. It is too difficult a joke to explain the nuances here.]

Still we had a good time, but sad to say one can not poke around the Bridgenorth engine sheds no more, despite Allen trying argue his way in saying we had come all the way from America to do so; well, er, sort of! As you can guess by now, I also like old steam trains.

Bidding our leave, we were due to join the LDMCC Northern Section at The Railway (pub) that evening for club night. They had also found us a local B&B, though finding it was a bit tricky. Actually we came upon The Railway first, then turned back. Next we tried what seemed to be the correct lane, this lead to an abandon military depot. The next dirt lane to nowhere actually turned out to be the correct one, leading to the Logwood Mill, our B&B. Inexpensive, quiet, and spotless; a very good pick by the Northern section, though it turned out they had exactly the same trouble locating it as we did, and it is only a quarter mile down the road from The Railway, their local!

We arrived back at The Railway by 8:00pm, and it seemed everyone was already there, in fact it was packed. Concerned for my stomach, I tried to gracefully decline a pint, a futile action if there ever was one in that crowd. Much to my dismay, rather than upsetting it, I suddenly felt a whole lot better. Damn!, Allen got off Scot free!

One member brought along some tools which he thought he might stump me with, but I guessed them before he had them halfway out of the bag. Better luck next time! Then to add insult to injury I inquired when he was going to start using his Plus model which I had seen at the rally. Seems he has been! My mistake, it looked so clean, I really ought to start paying closer attention to past NCR issues! My thanks to The Northern section for a jolly evening. We also got some handy tips on the I.o.M., where we were next bound.

The next day was a leisurely drive up to Heysham to catch the midday ferry to the Island. As we had a little time to spare we located Brunnel Engineering (model steam) and got a tour of the machine shop. The old gent that was working there gave up his lunch break to show us around, once he found out we dabbled with old machinery ourselves.

The ferry trip over to Douglas was uneventful, though it seemed we left the sun behind in Heysham. We took the Mountain Electric Railway up to Ramsey, inquired at a pub, and they directed us to a guest house further up the street.

The next morning we had made arrangements to visit a club member, so we walked over there. Now that was an education! I particularly liked the four cylinder Vauxhuall motorcycle, there was a tremendous amount of effort put into replicating the missing frame, and quite an interesting history. And of course various Douglases to look at as well. I like looking at as many various models as possible, as it gives one a better sense of the gradual evolution of the marquee. When one only sees several of the more common models spread over many years you tend to overlook all the small changes that occurred from year to year.

By afternoon we were back down at Laxley, and the rain had stopped. We rode the Snaefell Mountain Railway up as far a Murry's Motorcycle Museum, which has quite a few motorcycles packed inside to say the least. Douglases, and Douglas engines are sprinkled about here and there. I found two things upsetting though. One, visitors had stolen many of the petrol caps off the machines on display, a downright petty thing to do. Second, it was quite damp inside, which must be hard on the exhibits. The infamous Mountain Mist, though it was clear outside. I do tend to favor museums cram packed with lots of related exhibits, like Murry's, I am partial to clutter myself!

We caught the next tram down, and spent the rest of a sunny afternoon exploring the Laxley Wheel and surrounding area. The Lady Isabella waterwheel is quite impressive by any measure, no matter how big! Further restoration of the mine head area can only but enhance an impressive site.

We continued on the MER down to Douglas, were we lodged for the night. We hung about the MER shops looking for and invitation in, but they have it well posted to stay out! By this time the rain decided we had quite enough sunshine for the day and resumed!

The next morning it was quite foggy. I had hung my jacket up on the wardrobe to dry, which turned out to be right were there was a leak in the ceiling! We walked to the station and rode the steam train out to Port Erin, and examined the interesting railway museum they have there. At the station, a nice fire was burning to dry out by. Could not see much of the town as visibility remained nil, in fact on the ride back one could not see much beyond the immediate right of way. I was not till we got back home and viewed the video I purchased, that we saw were we had ridden! Peering into the shops we saw some flat belt drive machinery in use, but could not get a closer look, in other words standing around looking hopeful did not get us in! Some people can just barge their way in places, but I was never much good at that.

The next morning it was still fog and drizzle, which disappeared as if by magic halfway back across on the ferry. I think the Island was trying to tell us something! Despite the indifferent weather, we saw enough to see another visit in the future is warranted.

Back at Heysham, the car was intact, much to our surprise. Our friends had thoughtfully primed us with all sorts of horror stories about un-attended cars being broken into. Not that I am paranoid, but we had taken the precaution to disable it, and hide the extra luggage out of view. This, and probably the fact that it was just a Renault, discouraged anyone from bothering it.

Motoring along southeast, we called in on friends, above Manchester, who we were staying with once again. Saturday was visiting some local emporiums, doing a deal on a set of Norton Roadholder forks I needed, and capped off with a ride on the Kieghly and Worth Valley Railway. As my friends had been over to the American Mid-West, we had lots of holiday stories to talk about, as I have never been out to that part of the country.

Parting Sunday morning, we drove down to Bridgenorth to attend the Annually Rally of the Panther's owner club, as my brother is a member. We had some difficulty finding it, so only caught the tail end of it (it started Saturday).

We were due that evening at my friends place near Heathrow, and arrived sometime after five. My friend's backyard had turned from a jungle into the proper English garden since I had last seen it five years ago. Perhaps the bikes are going to be sidelined by a new hobby? Another acquaintance came by latter with his wife, and we talked clear into Monday. Mind you, we were due to fly out Monday morning!

I mentioned that I had been on the lookout, during our trip, for an engine suitable for my A31 chassis. A little rummaging and he turned up most of the bits of a wrecked engine, which I can rebuild. This on the very last morning we were in the U.K.! Since the A31 is a basket case, and only 85% at that, plans are to build a spartan little trial bike out of the bits to potter around in the local vintage trials. We have a few informal events nearby which I spectate at.

We had to do our final packing, and all the garbage that was in the car had to somehow fit in the suitcases. This included not only the clothing we came with, but the pamphlets, books, and videos we acquired; the headlamps, dynamo, Norton forks, A31 engine; sixty-five or so back issues of NCR; and two large wool blankets from a small waterpowered mill, and other odds and ends.

A lot of juggling was required to split the weights up, as well as some high density packing! This involved stuffing dirty socks and shirts inside the cylinder barrels and crankcase! The large suitcase weighed 88lbs, the medium one 56lbs, my carry-on was 44lbs, in all it was over +200lbs for the lot. I even used my camera bag as a second carry on, stuffed full of displaced clothing.

We dropped the car off, and arrived at the terminal in good time, only to find out our flight was over booked. Despite booking six months prior, it is filled on a first come serve basis. Needles to say, we were delayed until the plane was safely off the ground, leaving an angry mob of passengers at the counter. They offered an alternate flight to Dullis, D.C., with a connection to Philadelphia, and things we starting to look ugly, till they offered £250-00 compensation and an up grade to business class. That made everybody happy right quick!

Proceeding on to customs (after cashing my refund check) I anticipated some problems with my 30% metallic carry-on bag. I dropped it on the conveyor with a hell of a bang, and told the attendant to "watch this". I'll give the x-ray operator credit, he almost kept total composure, but I did notice a slight bulging of the eyes. They were quite pleasant about it, they let me unload the bag so they could examine the magneto armature, dynamo, smaller bits of the Norton forks and such. Minus this they sent the bag through again, and it still flunked! Rooting around I found a few more ferrous objects to remove, and the x-ray machine finally deemed it safe for travel, though it was starting to glow a bit...!

The luggage that went into the hold, on the other hand, never so much as raised a comment, despite being loaded with all the larger iron objects. Nor the fact it was overweight, thankfully!

The flight back was much more pleasant, entirely due to the nicer accommodations of business class. Better food, private little color LCD T.V., roomier seat, I should get bumped more often! The original cost of the return tickets was £341, less the compensation, a round trip airfare for only £91! The connecting flight from Dullis to Philadelphia was pretty bad, but mercifully brief. It was like a cattle truck, and about as dirty. So much for being spoilt! We got home much latter than intended, but were able to call from Dullis to warn our ride of the change in plans, so everything worked out in the long run.

I had bruised collar bones from having 44lbs hanging from a shoulder strap of my carry on bag, while lugging heavy cases up and down airport concourses! The things I put myself through!

Next day back to work, all my vacation was gone and over with! Quite a strain, but a lot of fun. Perhaps in another five years I can do it all again!

© 2002 D. Kephart

 

 


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