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

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

The scooter not only enables you to get close to nature but acts as a catalyst for meeting people. People constantly approached me, wanting to know more about the bike, and this led to frequent friendly exchanges. In Ireland this type of vehicle wasn't particularly common and rosy-cheeked children would flock to get a closer glimpse. "Your scooter's so lovely, I just love it," they'd say with absolute admiration in the most charming accents imaginable.

Of course, nothing is perfect, and traveling by motor scooter is no exception. Inherent in this wondrous melding of man, vehicle and nature is a face-to-face confrontation with whatever weather is dished out. When you're visiting the British Isles, that inevitably means getting wet.

Be prepared to feel, taste and smell the rain. While downpours are infrequent, constant drizzle is the norm. It can seep into clothing and chill you to the bone, but wearing proper clothing will minimize the discomfort.

Pack sensibly with enough dry clothing to change into once you're dry and indoors for the evening. A waterproof slicker and pants, combined with a helmet and gloves, will go a long way keeping you dry and insulated from the cold. After riding a scooter through Britain, one learns that many "biker" stereotypes, such as the wearing of leather, are motivated by function, not fashion. Leather provides a protective covering that's both warm and waterproof, albeit expensive.

Although scootering through the rain admittedly sounds less than glamorous, the sun eventually does come and when it does, the rush that accompanies its appearance is worth all the miles of soggy dampness. Remember, rain, like afternoon tea, is an integral part of the way of life in the British Isles. It's why the countryside is so green and lush why and the people are so hardy.

Beyond the weather issue, some regard the limited amount of packing space too great a drawback to traveling via scooter. For those who usually travel light, this should not impose any major inconvenience. A well-selected scooter plus accessories will hold much as a normal suitcase or backpack.

Roomy, waterproof saddlebags and plastic boxes that adhere solidly to the back of the bike are available for storing clothing and other belongings. On many models, the helmet conveniently stores in a compartment under the seat. For additional storage, a small book backpack can be comfortably worn while riding. Be sure however, that this pack is light enough not to impose on your balance ability.

Regarding security, I would take the saddlebags and book backpack inside the bed-and-breakfasts each night. I never locked the bike throughout the trip, however, and often during the day I would leave my belongings on the bike while eating or exploring. Since most of my trip was spent in remote, rural areas, I became very trusting.

In Europe and Britain, motorcycles and scooters are more commonplace than in the United States, and the roads and fellow motorists tend to be very accommodating. The British road system facilitates cycling with a series of trunk roads that often parallel major motorways.

When the motorways end, old trunk roads take over, leading to more remote areas -- through sleepy villages with friendly pubs and rugged countryside. My bike, since it was only 125cc, was not allowed on superhighways, but was permitted on virtually every other road, including some dirt paths used primarily by sheep and cows.

However, despite the Britons' familiarity with motorcyclists, I opted to drive cautiously, rarely exceeding 40 mph and hugging the left side of the road to enable motorists to pass easily. Learning how to ride a scooter while driving on the "wrong side of the road" forces the rider to concentrate on the task at hand and consequently makes many people better drivers.

Another plus to scootering, though some might consider it a detriment, is the limited number of miles that can be realistically traveled in a day. To avoid the extreme fatigue associated with riding in the elements, limit daily journeys to about 60 miles. This amount of driving will promote a terrifically restful night's sleep. Perhaps most beneficially, the limited mileage will enable riders to explore small areas more extensively, instead of an entire country briskly.

As for the scooter's economy, it definitely allows one to see as many places as possible for as little money as possible. Gas mileage ranged from 70 to 80 miles per gallon, less than scooter manufacturers advertise but still far surpassing that of an automobile.

Although my scooter initially was expensive, this cost must be prorated across the five months and 3,000 miles it was used. In addition to the 750-pound purchase price, I bought insurance (available through the dealer for about 40 pounds, or $74), a helmet, a waterproof slicker and pants, a storage box, saddlebags and gloves, bringing the grand total to 900 pounds ($1,665).

Prior to my return to the States, I sold the bike back to a dealer for 350 pounds ($647.50), making my actual expense 550 pounds ($1,017.50). With car-rental agencies charging this much for about three weeks' use, the motor scooter seemed like an economic miracle. But, in addition to finding a thrifty means of transportation, I experienced a rewarding way of traveling the world.

If you go . . .

In London, I shopped at three motorcycle stores: Sondel Sport at 28 Highbury Corner, Cosmopolitan at 73 Camberwell Road and the Bike Studio at 217 High Road in Harrow Weald, Middlesex.

In Dublin, try Nolan Jack and Company Ltd., at 29 The Coombe 8; in Edinburgh, Scotland, try Carrick Motors at 7 S. College St.

If you don't want to invest the time or money in purchasing a scooter, consider renting one. Rental shops, although more common in southern European countries such as Greece, Italy and Spain, are available in the British Isles. In London, try Scootabout Central London at 59 Albert Enbankment, Raceways Motorcycles at 201 Lower Road and Kegre Scooter Centre at 91 Prince Ave.

--Leslie Anne Feagley

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