On Christmas night in 1776, George Washington famously led part of his army across the icy Delaware river in a surprise attack against the British.
Coming just six months after the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia, it was a bold and desperate act from a desperate general.
After many defeats including the loss of New York, the morale of Washington’s ragged army was at an all time low as the harsh Pennsylvania winter set in. Without food or warm clothing numbers were shrinking fast, he was losing more men to disease and desertion than to battle.
But, in a heavy snowstorm, he surprised the British troops enjoying their Christmas festivities and scored an important victory. His daring raid revitalised the patriot army and gave new life to the American Revolution that would eventually lead to Washington himself being declared the first president of the United States.
We too had to cross the Delaware river to start our American cycling adventure, heading east out of Philadelphia and into New Jersey.
It was perhaps a little easier … we had the huge Benjamin Franklin bridge to carry us across instead of flimsy boats, the weather was a lot better and we weren’t carrying any heavy artillery (not even a hair dryer!)
But it was still a little daunting.
Like the rest of our cycling experience in America so far, it turned out to be much easier than we expected. A path dedicated to pedestrians and cyclists kept us well above the busy road and rail track, and gave us some great views back to the city.
Did we say “cycling”?
It turns out that no one in America understands what that means … so what we really mean is “biking”. In the States we are bikers!
And the biking has been great. There are plenty of quiet roads or bike lanes to choose from. Even on busier roads, motorists are very courteous, waving us across at junctions, letting us go through lights first and giving us a wide berth as they pass. In urban areas cars seem to glide gently along … no horns, no hurry.
In fact American drivers are so polite that they go straight to the top of our ‘Car Courtesy League’ pushing the Irish down into second place. Let’s hope it continues!
We learnt about Washington’s crossing of the Delaware from the Museum of the American Revolution museum, one of many excellent museums and art galleries in Philly. It even features Washington’s perfectly preserved war tent, a tent so famous that it has its own high tech multi-media show.
Other visitor attractions include important symbols from the struggle for freedom from the British … the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall and the Benjamin Franklin Museum.
As the most favourite of favourite sons, you can’t miss Ben in Philly. As well as the bridge there’s a highway, a borough, a park, a science museum, a football stadium, a gentleman’s club and several schools all named after him.
To be fair he did have quite a life … founding father, printing entrepreneur, newspaper publicist, diplomat and inventor. His many inventions include bifocal glasses, the lightening rod and kite surfing. It’s true … as a keen swimmer, he created a kite that pulled him backwards and forwards across his pond!
Despite these many achievements, Benjamin Franklin was not the highlight of our visit to Philadelphia. The highlight was the Barnes Foundation and its extraordinary collection of impressionist art.
Having made his money inventing and marketing a disinfectant that became popular for treating venereal disease, Albert C. Barnes started collecting modern art in the 1920’s at a time when Impressionism was nowhere near as popular as it is today.
Once overhead saying to a friend that … “I am convinced I cannot get too many Renoirs” … he stayed true to his word, eventually hovering up a collection of 181 Renoir paintings. To that extraordinary number he added 69 by Cézanne, 59 by Matisse, 46 by Picasso and several more by Van Gogh, Rousseau, Modigliani and others.
The Barnes Foundation is unlike any art gallery we’ve ever been to.
We were very lucky. This is a quiet time in the visitor cycle, allowing us to wander through the small, intimate rooms almost alone.
They are left exactly as Albert Barnes arranged them at the time of his death in 1951. The paintings are not displayed chronologically or by artist, but by theme or colour. Interspersed with African masks, native American jewellery or Victorian iron doorknobs, Barnes believed that art, like life, should not be segregated.
The effect is astonishing. Breathtaking.
And for the cheesesteaks!
This famous local delicacy is a long, crusty roll filled with thinly sliced, freshly sautéed ribeye beef and melted cheese … with just the right amount of drip.
As we cycled (sorry … biked) towards Atlantic City we soon came across another slice of Americana. New Jersey is the spiritual home of the great American Diner, with more diners than in any other state. They are perfect places to refuel … sitting at a counter, munching our way through an enormous portion, letting the ketchup run down our chins.
After a lunch or breakfast like that, it’s a wonder that we are able to pedal on at all!
Altlantic City itself was disappointing, much faded from its glory days as the prime East Coast beach resort and city of bootleggers. Today it’s dominated by cheap candy stores, kiss-me-quick arcades and casinos.
At this time of year, we’re expecting a few enforced rest days to shelter from the rain. The first one came sooner than we hoped … after just two days of cycling we were itching to move on.
It doesn’t rain gently here … this is proper rain. Big, strong American rain!
Not having the fortitude of Washington and his men, we were glad to be safely tucked up inside our hotel, watching it pour down across the parking lot.
But there was a bonus.
The following day the tail end of the storm created a strong tailwind that swept us down the Jersey Shore to Cape May, a beautiful preserved Victorian seaside resort that boasts one of the top 10 most beautiful beaches in the country.
It was as we crossed back over the Delaware by ferry that we heard the Queen had passed away. It was a moment of mixed emotions … joy at her long life well lived, sadness that she’s gone. She has been ever present in all our lives and a such a strong, calming influence.
Knowing that Americans love their flags, we’ve attached a couple of small Union Jacks to the back of our bikes. We were amazed to see how many people flagged us down to ask us if we’d heard the news that our Queen had died and to tell us how sad they were feeling.
So whilst Washington famously crossed the Delaware to score a symbolic victory that led to pushing the British out, we British Bikers have been a lot more fortunate.
We’ve crossed the Delaware to a very warm welcome.
Clare and Andy