Artist's open-air tour of the British Isles proved both exhilarating and inexpensive


March 17, 1991|By Leslie Anne Feagley

In traveling through Britain, I've hired cars, tried the BritRail Pass, trekked till my feet ached, rented bikes, ridden the bus and even hitchhiked. But nothing comes close to the exhilaration and rewards, or the economy, of scootering throughout the British Isles.

My first scooter adventure began with a skeptical motorcycle salesman. "Let me see if I've got this straight, love," he said, undoubtedly thinking I was joking. "You're an American artist, a woman traveling alone, who wants to buy a scooter so you can bike your way across England, Ireland and Scotland -- and you've never ridden a scooter before."

I assured the salesman that I wasn't daft and would appreciate seeing a vehicle. Negativism had no place in this adventure.

So I purchased a 2-year-old 125cc Honda Lead white scooter with 2,500 miles on it for 750 pounds (or $1,387.50, valuing the pound at $1.85). On taking a test ride in the alley alongside the store, I discovered the scooter's operation to be amazingly simple. It was automatic, with no gears, unlike a motorcycle.

With just a twist of my right wrist to accelerate and hand gears to brake, I was off -- literally into London's 5 o'clock rush hour traffic. The dealer assured me that the license necessary for driving the scooter came with the bike. No test was needed.

Unlike the cars stalled at Hyde Park Corner and the Marble Arch roundabout (traffic circle), my scooter and I easily weaved our way in between the stopped vehicles, much to the chagrin of their drivers. Upon returning to my hotel, I immediately packed up my scooter and departed for Oxford, about 60 miles northwest of London.

From Oxford, I headed west catching the car ferry to Ireland (the scooter cost 20 pounds -- $37 -- to cross). I circled the Emerald Isle, mainly following the coastline, before to crossing the Irish Sea at Larne and entering Scotland. After heading north to the National Park area known as the Trossachs, I toured both west and east coastal areas. The remainder of the trip took me back south to London through Yorkshire and the Midlands.

Loyal "bikers" understand the freedom, excitement and adventure intrinsic to motorcycling. Selecting a mere scooter to ride, and not fitting the stereotypical impression of a biker, in no way diminished the quality of the experience.

Because riders are out in the elements, engrossed in the environment they came to explore, an intimate involvement takes place. In a sense, they become part of the scene-- part of the moors, absorbed by the fog and immersed in the heather.

It's a sensual experience. The country's air fills the lungs and one feels as if each breath is the first. The lush green hills and vivid hues of the wildflowers saturate one's vision. The field of view is unimpaired by physical barriers, and all the wonderful, unexpected surprises that take place while touring another country seem brighter, clearer and infinitely more real.

Whether it's watching magnificent Ely Cathedral rise from the horizon, literally out of nowhere, from the city's surrounding fields, or embracing the simple pleasure in seeing thousands of colorful Irish wildflowers whip past your feet -- nothing separates you from the land you're visiting. When other tourists drive by in rented cars, they see you as part of the landscape. Their vacation writes itself through the car or bus window; yours unfolds within the elements.

A motor scooter allows unparalleled flexibility and freedom to explore at one's own pace, and because of its compactness, the rider avoids traffic and parking hassles faced by larger vehicles. Want to snap a photo, enjoy a picnic, pat a sheep or pick some heather? On a scooter, you're free to stop almost anywhere, at a moment's notice, and park safely at roadside without disrupting traffic.

Once such experience occurred in Scotland as I stopped on the road to photograph a couple of horses, grazing in the distance. To get a better vantage point, I scaled the fence and trekked a bit into the hills. It was an uncharacteristically sunny day and the brilliant highland colors were breathtaking.

As I was photographing the animals, I heard the faint sound of bagpipes in the distance. Was I dreaming? With the beautiful scene before me and the gentle echo of music on the breeze, I was overcome with emotion.

Just over the hill up the road, in what had seemed an entirely desolate area, appeared a pub/restaurant with a band of 20 bagpipers in full Scottish regalia, practicing in the parking lot. I parked my scooter alongside them and listened for nearly an hour.

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