As the Tour de France surges forward and the occasional pile-up is reported in the English news, so the domestic daily version of this annual gladiatorial struggle invades my experience. I have had to attend various morning meetings and therefore I have been compelled to travel with the commuters. Every day during rush hour cyclists herd and jostle at every traffic light and push off in a fashion more akin to Brownian motion than the order of Newton. It is not only an homage to the Tour but in parallel it provides an outlet for the English obsession with fancy dress. Nearly every cyclist has his or her particular outfit. Lycra plays a leading role in this drama along with a solid dis-regard for looking nice - and an unfortunate ignorance of their garb's transparency when stretched. Seemingly everyone is taking part in a race as they wear branded sports clothing and a confusing array of tight fitting outfits. Cars are expected to line up, one behind another, and at traffic lights they wait patiently for a comforting and encouraging green light to usher them on their way. No such convention applies for the peloton hovering at the lights. Some balance rocking backwards and forwards with their arms and legs contorted on their 'fixies', others ride their bicycles onto the pavement and cycle on, still others ignore the interdiction offered by a red light completely. As a cyclist you never know from which side a fellow competitor may approach. Rush hour in London on a bicycle is chaos, and quite a challenge.
Nonetheless it is the only way to travel in the city, cars cost a fortune and public transport is fine unless you have an appointment, in which case it is just not reliable enough due to cancellations and traffic. Astride a bicycle you have the freedom of the road and barring punctures a guaranteed arrival time. A day on the road returns you home throbbing with a sense of the Roman ideal of 'Mens sana in corpore sano'. Both your body and your mind have been stretched and are in harmony.
Some may question the safety of riding a bicycle in London, but for me the least safe place to travel is by car on country roads. The local denizens hurtle along narrow lanes with high bushy hedges on both sides.
They force you to drive off the road or into a hedge to avoid a collision. This happens several times an hour and is very wearing, every blind corner brings hot fear and cold sweat as the next bucolic racing driver may be just around the corner. I am spending time reconnoitering in Honiton and at the antiques centre at Exeter airport. The former is a pretty village in Devon famed for its numerous antique shops - the town's website proudly announces that there are over 20 - the shops are all arranged along the high st, At one end there is the BADA member Roderick Butler, who has a very pretty, perfectly manicured stone house and garden with his shop located in a barn beside it. I walk in looking very scruffy. The older gentleman manning the shop looks up disconsolately from his newspaper. I don't think it is Mr Butler himself, this man has the air of a Dickensian clerk, tall, thin wispy haired and in my imagination bowed by years of unrecognised servitude. He proffers access to the two showrooms, 'Fine furniture' or 'Oak and Walnut'. A few minutes suffice to cast an eye round the rooms, the stock is well presented and all worthy but there is nothing here for me. I give thanks and bid my host farewell.
As I make my progress along the street I find my attention being drawn to the appetising looking savoury pie shop, the butcher, the fishmonger etc. I cannot seem to get inspired by any of the so-called antiques I see. The shops increasingly become a blur as each one is visited and offers tiny room after tiny room crammed with small objects. The staff types vary from loud large women smoking to skinny, worried, silent and slightly sullen looking boys and all points in between.
One shop has devoted itself to becoming a pink boudoir full of dolls, children's furniture and dummies dressed in vintage costume. Lace parasols punctuate each room, and little notices helpfully guiding ones taste are positioned around judiciously. I exit as swiftly as is seemly. In the end I buy a few pies and some dressed crab and head on to Exeter.
On my way I am pulled over by the police. They ask me if I will participate in a survey. As I am not being arrested for a transgression I am only too delighted to oblige. A young man comes over. Question 1: Could I have the postcode of the place I have come from? Answer: Um - sorry I don't know, but it's in a village called Buckland St Mary. The questioner looks disappointed and embarrassed on my behalf but presses on with Question 2: Could I have the postcode of the place you are going to? Answer: Um - sorry I don't know. Somewhere near Exeter airport. Questioner looks shocked but scribbles something down. Question 3: Did you know that this is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty? He says this with a weary disappointed air, as if my failure to suitably answer the previous two questions clearly indicate that I would not have a clue about the fact that this in area described with capital letters. I answer, Yes, as brightly as I can; trying to compensate for my earlier inadequacy, but actually lying to boot! Of course, I realise that the region is lovely lush and rolling, but I was not aware that it had a certificate to prove it. I get a desultory 'Okay and am sent on my way more confused than anything else.
Just beyond the main entrance to Exeter airport are a group of warehouses full of furniture and objects for sale. An enterprising group - in recognition of both their proximity to the airport and the paucity of antiques buyers - they have sublet their accumulated parking spaces as low cost long term parking for holiday makers. Visiting these shops is quite surreal as the approach is interrupted by a parade of people pulling heavy luggage over the uneven road surfaces. Families bickering after a long car journey lend a strange backdrop to the old school dealing within the sheds. This is how it used to be. Large quantities of 'stuff', no sense of arrangement or scholarship, this is what used to be called 'shipping goods'. In the past dealers from the USA would call by and fill containers for onward shipment, buying 20 or 30 items at a time from a favoured few and when the container was full it would be shipped and emptied and the hungry trade would return for more. In the hey day of this sort of dealing the successful would fill three or more containers a year. Those days are long gone but the style persists in little pockets though these become fewer and fewer each year. They are dinosaurs aware of their imminent extinction. But it is fun to walk round and there are opportunities amid the hurly burly. I pass a comfortable hour browsing and pondering who I could find to buy a late 19th century octagonal table by Jackson and Graham or a Yew wood drop leaf table from the mid 18th century. I end up not buying anything but I can see that in time an opportunity will present itself. Along the way I was very pleased to be reminded of one of my favourite catalogue entries. I saw once a lot described as: Two stuffed crocodiles - one wired for electricity. Sitting on a table there by Exeter airport was a wired for electricity crocodile, perhaps even the same one!
I drive back avoiding, as far as possible, small roads thinking about where I might go next for shopping opportunities in Somerset and its neighbouring counties.