Statistically, well that probably should be, numerically, ‘ what is the largest invasion of the British Isles in history? ‘ Now you have the obvious candidates; The Romans, The Normans, and then there are the outside bets, the Vikings and perhaps even the Jutes. But in terms of numbers, the largest is the Poles, after E.U. integration. It began with little obvious signs beyond Polsat dishes being put up on the sides of houses and flats and within a few years, Tesco has a whole section devoted to Polish food. Their plumbing skills are legendary, work ethic and friendliness, second to none.
It is not the first time that Poles have been an important part of British history. In WW2, many had managed to flee, ahead of the Nazi force and formed fighting units and Government in exile, under the Allies. The Polish squadron of the Battle of Britain fought in a way that only people who have nothing to lose can. It became the most successful squadron of the battle of Britain, with over 10,000 serving in the Royal Air Force by the end of the war.
It is moving into winter here, with trees just a little less in leaf and those there are, more russet every morning. It was a perfect day, but just 11′c, as we left the little hotel near Morag. To link quiet roads together, we needed to do a section of rough track by taking a right to Prosno. Tarmac turned to sand and stones, and then the nightmare that is cobbles, all the size of loaves of bread. I am yet to come across a cobble that I like, and these were horrible. We miss a turn, but pick up the mistake with the gps, and save what would have been a morning of tears and tantrums.
Poland has the most perfect woodlands. If you are a fan of wood, this is the holiday destination for you. The low light of an Autumn morning like this, without the glare of high summer, and you have the perfect ride in a wood. The surface is now occasional stretches of deep sand, our second least favourite surface to ride heavy touring bikes on. We stop at the first village we come to and celebrate not getting hopelessly lost or breaking a collar bone. Two large Vodkas and a tomato juice are the standard order, but we take a tea and a coffee. We are about 140km south of Gdansk now, but the coffee is the most Russian style yet. The three sugar cubes that it requires to make it drinkable, float on the surface of the sump oil coloured brew.
The Madonna in the little church is surrounded with rosary beads of amber. A reminder of the Baltic’s most famous export since neolithic time. Like all churches in Poland, there is no mention that there may have been a Pope or two since John Paul 2. It is warming up and we are in high spirits, until we come to one of our many ‘ bridge out moments ‘, that have been a feature of our travels. This looks like a 15km detour and busy roads, but just as we turn to leave we get a shout. Things get organised and we get a helping hand across a series of planks that lead around the building site and back onto the road. How happy were we?
On we go through Beech forest, dense and dark with a strong smell of mushrooms and damp. It is like a ride accompanied with Soy sauce. We pitch the tent by 5.30 near the village of Bronowo, for a night of wild camping next to a lake. There is no wind what so ever and no clouds to speak of. A cold night ahead for the first time, but a mug full of Earl Grey and the finest down sleeping bags that money can buy, and there could be worse places to be. It is so quiet that you can place the individual splashes of fish jumping and each acorn that falls from the Oak trees around us.
We can also hear lorries speeding along the 521, lots of them. This is our route for the morning, and we have gone out of our way to be on what should be a quiet minor road and not the ‘ TRUCK FEST ‘ (my least favorite made up word in the whole world ) raceway, that it sounds. It will be a stressful first 20km as it is a narrow road and each side has a meter zone of pothole and crumbling tarmac, forcing us out into the middle. Not a nice thought to drift off to sleep with.
It all goes well enough and we are obviously still here to tell the tale. All Poles drive as though they have a strong belief in an afterlife. As a nation, they have set out for ‘ point B ‘, but have all left ‘ point A ‘ at least ten minutes late. We have been cut up by innumerable vehicles here that have included an Ambulance, a Police car and a learner driver who had just been given the instruction, ” Go on put your foot down, you can make it! “.
We catch a ferry across the river the river Wisla to the fortress town of Gniew. As we push the bikes up the steep ascent, we pass the church and to our right the walls of a row of houses are peppered with bullet holes. The view over the flood plain is panoramic from here and fighting to secure this military asset was horribly intense. I found myself mesmerised by the wall, more poignant than a whole museum.
Now that we are half way across Poland, we realise that we have not seen a wooden house for a few days. Agriculture is much more intense and business like here and yet, there is still room for huge stretches of woodland. Light is being lost every day now and we need to start thinking about a pitch by 5.00 at the latest as it is dark now by 7.00. Tonight, we find a spot near Skorcz, in a green lane that leads to two recently sown fields. We are close to buildings, but tucked out of view from most directions. We are having a spell of good weather and although it is a Friday night, in every direction, tractors can be heard pulling hard against ploughs, seeders and harrows. It is all 21st century farming with the addition of a house cow or two from the last millennium.
We settle down in anticipation of the sounds of the night. We are not disappointed, as Owls screech from branches all around us. Goodness they are loud. I have often thought that getting half a dozen Peacocks must stretch neighbourly love to breaking, with the horrible noise they make. Keeping Owls as a hobby would also require tolerance and understanding all round. It is 10′c as we ride into the village in the morning, but the air feels much colder. I have much of my cold weather kit on for the first time.
There is not a single sign for the 214, which is what we are looking for. We get advice from a man who looks like an extra from one of the crowd scenes in Fiddler on the roof. He points one way, but is contradicted by a gentleman who looks like a librarian, who is pointing in the other direction. The gps agrees with the first guy, but for an unknown reason we side with the second with the consequence that we get hopelessly lost. We have gone with the authority figure and pay a heavy price as we ride rough sandy roads trying to get back to where we should be. We end the day in a hotel in Koscierzyna, where I am as sick as a dog with Goulash poisoning.
A day is lost from my life, but it is all part of the rich tapestry of travel. Again it is 10′c as we start, but this time it feels warmer as there is absolutely no wind at all. It is Beaufort scale zero, and wood smoke goes up chimneys and then hangs on the air. There is not a ripple to spoil the mirror of the many lakes that we pass. A smudge of iridescent blue passes, the first King Fisher I have seen from the seat of a bicycle. We are on the 228, going towards Bytow and stop at a petrol station for a first coffee of the day. It is quite a treat. But not as much a treat as you could walk away with. Behind the till, rows of Vodka bottles, fifty at least and twenty of other spirits. I am sure this is illegal in most places in the civilised world other than Germany.
The first sign that we are back on the Baltic Cycle Route and perfect roads again. If you were looking to bring your bike to Poland, and I suggest that you should. Here would be a perfect place to base yourself and some good cycling chums. It may be that we are here on some perfect day, but this is rather special. We stop for supplies at a village store. The owner tells us the usual story of Siberian exile and family spread to the four corners of the world. He puts two king-sized Snickers into our hands ” For condition “.
We wild camp again in perfect spot. What is not so 10/10, is that it rains most of the night. It does stick to the rules of rain over night allowed if it stops and brightens in time for tent exit in the morning. We head back onto the 209 towards Slawno with the feeling that this morning we have slipped a week further into Autumn. By 11.00 it is 19′c, so all is forgiven and we are dressed for a summer ride and happy with the world.
A guy comes up for a chat and ask where we are going. We get the bare bones of what he is saying, but not the important bit. If you look at the photo you do wonder how we failed to pick up, ” turn around here and go that way, the road you are heading for is rubbish and will break your wheels! ” Looking at it now, how could we have got it so wrong. We change our plans and head more towards the Baltic coast, and avoid the horrible road that we had planned to use.
It is a warm day now and after the rain, mushrooms are pushing towards the light in every corner of the woods. Poland loves mushrooms, and every possible pull-in has a car parked. It looks as if many have called in sick to be out here on mushroom day. Many make there way into freezers, goulash and market stalls where they sell for next to nothing rather than the fortune they would fetch in London or Paris.
After lunch, we take a minor road towards Slowino and the landscape suddenly becomes fenlike with big fields and distant vanishing points. Cranes, some now in flocks of a hundred, are heading west with us. Another perfect day that disappears at the next junction when the gps line vanishes and the track becomes hole and boulder in equal measure. We turn around, unhappy at the 15km detour that we now need to make.
As we retrace our route through the small village, a man comes up to us. He is excited to see us and invites us along a track to his home and apple orchard. We get the gist of a remarkable story of Ultra marathon success all over the world. Andrej Zukowski has completed in marathons and ultra runs that have added up to 80,000km over 20 years of competition. He invites us in for a small drink – we decline.
He shows us his archive of clippings and medals nailed to a rough plank of wood. It is an encounter we were destined to have. It is late when we move on and we must find a pitch quickly. We follow the gps for a woodland camp. We are near the town of Jezyce, but it may as well be anywhere. Deep in the forest, a night of Owls, Deer rutting and far off dogs barking. The gps shows the village we had been heading for, is still straight ahead and this may be a better way to go in the morning. See how lucky we are.
It is a leap of faith that things will all link up, but off we go to find the village of Dobiestaw. We are closer to the Sea than we have been since Estonia. At the village of Lazy, we get even closer as we ride a spit of land west and up the coast towards the German border. Cranes are now overhead almost constantly, their strange cry perfect for dubbing over any film of dinosaurs or Alien beasts. Melancholia hits with the first tourist town of the coast. It is the very tail end of the season and things look jaded, empty and far from fun. Add to this a disregard for taste and good planning, and the ribbon of unhappy development that stretches along the coast is a bit of a shock. We try the main road, but they are all want to be home in time for tea. We take advantage of an ‘ off season deal ‘ at a hotel in the town of Ustronie Morskie to have a day off and watch it rain.
We are almost at the end of Poland and have come around the Baltic Sea with Germany and the end of our European travels just ahead. If we can get there without breaking a wheel that would be perfect. My front rim has done over 30,000km now and I wince every time it hits hard. It will be nice to get a bit of a break soon from the glamorous world of bike touring.