Our journey continued south into The Cotswolds, a designated area of outstanding natural beauty, or AONB. The houses here are built of distinctive creamy coloured stone, many with thick thatched roofs, looking very much like the cover of a box of chocolates. Of course, such beauty doesn't come without a price, and we learned of the difficulties in maintaining and repairing listed buidlings in this area, where double glazing and satellite dishes, and even garden remodelling, have to run the strict gauntlet of the local planning office.
We were staying with friends celebrating a wedding anniversary, so after a bottle of bubbly1 we trundled to their local pub, to find a chalk board on the bar advertising 'medium curried scotch eggs'. Was that a medium spiced curry? Or a medium sized egg? There was only one way to find out!
Appetisers over, we ventured to the curry restaurant, where I learned a salutory lesson: never eat curry while wearing white trousers. We spent the following morning playing with their two dogs – Ollie, a 12-year old terrier, and Tenner, so called because he was born on the 10th October last year. An intelligent black lab with a knack for cocking his head on one side just so, he was a fervent devotee of 'fetch', and would play endlessly, bringing alternative missiles should the first one not be sufficiently interesting for the thrower to play ball, as it were.
A thankfully short run ensued to the little village of Gotherington, near Cheltenham, where we were meeting up with some old friends from the Gambia House and Donkey Trust. Between rainshowers, we erected marquees, ferried hay-bales, hung information boards and blew up balloons (my speciality). Their two dogs, a fabulous cocker spaniel called Wellie and a little terrier called Milly, ran back and forth helping.
That evening, we were due to rendezvous with another biking couple whom we'd never actually met in the flesh before. We headed to the only pub in the village, and enjoyed starters of stilton and port pate, followed by poached salmon with asparagus and hollandaise sauce. I discovered that A had just had a baby, and this was her first weekend away without the new addition. She and I got through a fair few bottles of wine, ending the evening with Dai remarking that he'd never before heard me say the words 'No thanks, I've had enough wine!'.
On the Saturday, Dai and I took charge of the food which had been partly prepared in five large vats in the kitchen, but which had to be transported to a marquee and kept hot. The Gambian-inspiried menu consisted of Benachen, a sort of rice stew, and Njebee, a bean mixture usually eaten for breakfast, with peanut brittle to follow. Gambian drummers added some colour to proceedings, followed by a live band. We were lucky enough to win a prize in the raffle, but as it was for dinner at a local hotel, we donated it to our generous and hard-working hosts.
Another long journey followed, as we made our way to the port of Holyhead in North Wales. At one coffee stop, a group of three bikers wandered around Dai's machine several times, obviously intrigued by some of the midfications he had carried out. Approaching the Welsh border, I again wondered if it would be obvious, but yes, there were plenty of signs welcoming us to Wales, in two languages, and in Wales all the signs are bilingual.
Holyhead had only previously been somewhere I'd passed through briefly, but as we were aiming for the first ferry, it made sense to overnight near the terminal. As we were checking into the Travelodge I said to Dai 'You'll never guess which three bikes have just pulled into the car-park!', as it transpired that the three bikers we'd seen earlier were also catching the morning boat. This stopover gave us a chance to wander around and see what the town had to offer.
It was an important historical link between Ireland and the rest of the British Isles, and at one stage all mail travelling between the two went through here. Like many ports, it's a bit rough around the edges, and there didn't appear to be a great deal to do on a Sunday night. Nevertheless, we enjoyed seeing the very old St Cybi's church, and the very modern stainless steel footbridge linking the town centre to the ferry terminal. Calling into a pub for a drink, we were stunned when a local at the bar said 'Happy Anniversary!' How did he know that, we wondered? I think his logic was that there were few reasons why a couple would be out drinking in Holyhead on a Sunday evening.
Safely onto the ferry for our final leg, we crossed the Irish Sea in under 2 hours, before negotiating the always tricky transit of Dublin. Bilingual signs cautioned us to drive on the left, and that speeds are in km/hr. I had no euro coins in the little toll-pocket on my sleeve, sadly, so we couldn't take the new tunnel. Dai was worried about a leaky petrol chamber, so we stopped at Aye-Bee's place just north of the city to check it out. And admire her new pup Tandi. And borrow some euros for the Boyne toll-bridge.
The new road from Dublin to Belfast means a journey time of just over an hour. Funnily enough, the border with Northern Ireland was one of the most un-obvious of the whole trip: a road sign advises that speed limits are now in miles per hour, the colour of the markings at the side of the road change, but that's it. I remember the days when this border crossing used to take as long as the rest of the journey, requiring passing an army checkpoint as well as a customs point, often entailing opening bonnet, boot, and any transported items of luggage, as well as checking ID. If you can imagine lines of trucks and other goods vehicles queued up to go through this procedure you can begin to apprciate the contrast to today's smoothness.
Safely home to a garden that badly needs cutting (or needs cutting badly, depending on who's driving the lawnmower), a doggy delighted to see us again, and a sink full of dirty dishes. Teenagers, tsk.