Home straights and homecomings
It was Germany that played host to the chilly, damp dregs of my journey around the world by bicycle. But I’d become distracted. In principle, this was still cycle touring, more pertinently I was on an extensive tour of German bakeries, an awesome bout of scattered binge-eating . Cycling had become somewhat incidental, a means to an end, and that end was strudel.
Recurrently I devastated the front row of doughnuts in bakeries across Bavaria, with more competitive vigour than I’d ever shown for riding a bike. I’d arrive into dozy, sunlit villages – baroque church, yeah whatever, where’s the pastries at? The flat riverside miles, the breezy pedaling, all at odds with my mountainous appetite, and I began thinking that perhaps I wouldn’t be the sleek, toned champion I conjured when dreaming of my return to British soil.
Talk across Europe remained on the refugee crisis, thought to be the largest movement of people to the continent since the Second World War. In Munich PEGIDA were distributing flyers (The acronym, translated, stands for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West – doing the Heil Hitler whilst saying this is optional at present), my hosts across the continent had assisted at refugee camps or put up refugees themselves or felt driven to angst with each fear-mongering headline, each evoking tidal waves, rivers and other water-features of displaced people. In Nuremburg I watched a girl of Middle Eastern looks holding a solitary cabbage she’d bought from Aldi, I wondered about her as she teetered on the threshold of the escalator, unsure.
I left the Danube at Regensburg and pedaled north, following the weaving passage of other rivers whose names I forget. Northbound though, rather than straight west, because of a visit I wanted to pay to certain celebrity of the cycle touring community: Heinz Stucke. Whenever someone gets a little excited by my admission of being on a six year bike ride, Heinz’s story is the one I dust off. ‘Let me tell you about this guy…’
It’s almost impossible to hurdle the mere facts of his ride: 51 years on the road without returning to his home in Germany, roughly 650,000 km pedaled during that time, a distance of 16 times around the planet through 196 countries, all made even more incredible when you consider that nobody else is in the ballpark. I wanted to get behind the numbers and meet the man, and I knew Heinz, now 76 years old, had finally stopped pedaling and had returned to his home town in Germany a few years back – I was hoping to fish him out. I hope you’ll forgive me, but meeting Heinz is a tale I’m going to cordon off and save for the book because I can’t hope to do it justice in this blog.
The Dutch, it has to be said, love to say ‘Hallo!’ Even the teenagers who should be moody and melting things with lighters. I gloried in entering a peloton with three Dutch girls who giggled as we all glided, light as clouds, on a perfect bike lane, shouldered by meadows.
I like to think I’ve acquired at least some navigational skills over the last six years, though apparently not after submitting to losing one of Europe’s major cities: Amsterdam. How could this happen? I was only 40 km away. Finally, on a canal path, a dog walker came to my aid. Her expression, that of someone who suspects they’re on a hidden camera show, suggested that my question might have been a first: ‘excuse me – Amsterdam: have you seen it?’ (Perhaps she was expecting me to continue: ‘that acid was CRAZY!’)
Amsterdam: city of cyclists. Or to be more accurate: City of cyclists and a quite astounding number of dead cyclists. It is possible a city can simultaneously love and hate bikes so lustily?
A Dutch person will always assure you that it’s just the tourists who get clattered, Dutch cyclists, they say, are more or less immune to accidents, being more practiced and vigilant.
Dutch people spend more time on their bicycles than people of any other nationality, so it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that all kinds of other activities occur on bicycles too. Texting or Internet browsing is more or less universal, I’ve watched cyclists dressing and undressing, flirting (which invites the possibility of being romantically clothes-lined by speeding young lovers), reading, eating, smoking, combing hair, fashioning dreadlocks, and often managing a combination of the above. It’s quite incredible how much a Dutch person can achieve whilst cycling, their natural state. This of course adds an extra anxiety when pondering the perilous nature of Dutch cycle lanes, as if they need any more perils.
Consider this: bicycle lanes in Amsterdam are skinny runways that swarm with cyclists – there are more bicycles than people in the city (almost as many again in the canals). Said cyclists effortlessly maintain a speed comparable to the escape velocity of a rocket, in a dynamic made more insane because they share the prized inches with scooters. Add to this the fact that everyone is being pummeled by gale force wind, tyre-wide tram lines slice the lanes at unpredictable intervals and any cycling tourist in the melee hasn’t pedaled a bicycle for more than a decade and is three days into a sleepless mescaline bender.
It’s like the Dutch have designed it that way: sure, come to our lovely city, marvel at our canals, take our drugs, but don’t you dare try to survive. It’s evidence of a dark wit the Dutch conceal well but that I know is brewing beneath the surface. Who else would make drugs so potent and available, and cycling so potentially fatal? Amsterdam is where bicycles go to get stolen, and cyclists go to die.
I stayed in Amsterdam with my friend Tim, a guy I’d cycled through South America with many moons ago. Tim, like all Dutch people, is still tall and smiling, probably happy he’s alive at all, considering his commute to work.
I wandered the canals for a time, noting that Amsterdam is beautiful, gregarious, self-confident and a tractor beam for most of the damaged and insightless moochers from other parts of Europe. I tried desperately to avoid conversations with British people in particular, following one which went something like this:
‘Hey man, have you seen Brian?’
‘I don’t know you, or Brian’
‘Yeah, anyway, he took some of the blue pills and I haven’t seen him since… wait, what day is it?’
‘I have to go now’
‘OK, but wait, have you seen Brian?’
‘No. And you should put a t-shirt on, it’s cold and people are staring’
‘Yeah. Someone else told me that’
Just two weeks before I arrived, Tim told me, a young British man was found floating quite peacefully, and lifelessly, in one of the canals. CCTV footage shows him wandering about minutes beforehand, making curious cross-stitch style progress down the street, and stumbling little detours, one of which eventually took him to muddy water he was probably too wasted to appreciate was not going to be good for him.
After Amsterdam I began to get worried about some desperate anticlimax befalling my journey. Perhaps, having survived Outer Mongolia, I would die somewhere entirely safe and ordinary, like Belgium. My bicycle frame could snap into seven after summiting a Dutch speedbump. I could collide slowly but devastatingly with a six year old French girl on a tricycle. I could become victim to a stampede of sheep, or get irretrievably lost in London’s traffic, or forget my own identity in the panic of the homecoming, or finally acquire an answer to that question that has pestered me for years: is it possible to die from over-consumption of dairy milk chocolate? On perusing my map I realized I’d be passing near a village called Bonnington, and if there were to be a zombie apocalypse, I became fairly certain this would be the epicenter, at exactly the moment I happened to be cycling by.
|I enjoyed the fact this was a warning in the singular, a rooster gone rogue. Actually ‘rooster’ in Dutch means a kind of grid: this is warning for a cattle grid, not the marauding foul I’d hoped for|
Something that strikes me after living a life of relative (by European standards) frugality is the wastefulness of people. I ask for tap water, ‘not bottled water’, from a cashier in a petrol station who’s standing beside a sink. She blinks at me, fretful, as if I’d asked her what time Vlad the Impaler was dropping by. And one morning, in a hostel, I handed some rubbish to the receptionist who added it to the bin behind the desk. And then I remembered, he’d lent me a spoon, it was now amongst the rubbish he’d deposited. I told him, and this is what he said: ‘Its OK, we’ve got more’ and went back to work. ‘But it’s a spoon… a metal spoon…’ I stammered, surely it’s the height of lassitude to leave it in the bin?
A quick check of the weather forecast and I knew I was in for a meteorological slap about the chops. This shouldn’t be so much of a surprise to regular readers of this blog. I’m in a long term barny with mother nature, and a storm named ‘Imogen’ was her parting gift before I was to join the indoor world of London professionals, out of her reach. Holland’s windmills soon acquired an irritating logic. ‘You’re country’s too windy’ I told Tim who smiled meekly ‘yeah, I’m sorry about that’.
Imogen was a bitch, though Britain had the worst of her slapping. 93 km/hr winds thrashed me on the nose, launched wind farms into terrific whirling, tossed grey herons about like newspaper. A man stopped to kindly offer an explanation, or at least a description. ‘It’s very windy’ he shouted above the roar. ‘I wondered what that noise was’ I screamed back. ‘If you’re going to the Hague, its full headwind.’ It is legal in Holland to drown a man in a canal for being annoying?
In Bruges I met Edit, a lovely Hungarian lady I’d met before in Budapest, and we hung out for three days strolling the art galleries and book shops and bars before my final plunge towards home.
Heading towards Calais, the weather still very much unfriendly, I set upon Nuiport and suburbia when I was searching out my last rough camping spot of my six year ride, and for this reason, it had to be a good one, a glorious climax. I dithered for ages about some wind turbines before noticing the CCTV and shuffling a retreat. The rain was flying sideways, daylight petering to a grey glow, when I finally pitched in a muddy puddled clay-pit near a canal, inadvertently angling my tent entrance into the wind on a slab of ground so uneven I slept fitfully like a high jumper mid-flop. I also managed to knock my pan of water all over my ground sheet and the wind was so strong it was as if my tent was being savaged by an entire flock of angry and epileptic seagulls.
I’m gonna miss this, I thought, or wanted to, shivering violently in my tent porch. And because I didn’t quite believe it, I said it out loud ‘I’m gonna miss this’ and tried hard to mean it, but as my tent flapped madly in the gale, added ‘sometimes’.
It was a rough night, evidenced by the man whom I stopped the next morning to ask directions to Veurne and who kept frowning at my pronunciation before asking ‘du vin?’ and making the drinky drinky sign. It was 8.30 am. It’s reassuring I suppose that some things never change. The French were still resolutely refusing to recognize any of the syllables I created as belonged to their own language.
I couldn’t lose the paranoid visions of my return: on a canal path I was chased for an endless two metres by a pissed off goose.
Headline: Transcontinental cyclist found in Belgian canal
Subheading: A startled goose is thought to have driven a man on a six year bike ride into a fatal drowning after his jacket zip got caught in his bike chain.
The first signs of Britain arrived near Dunkirk when a string of shops shamelessly catering for British booze and fag runners arrived, all union jacks and names like ‘Coronation Street’ and ‘Smugglers Corner baccy shop’
For the last two weeks the weather had been all things British, and by that I mean changeable, and by that I mean changing between drizzle to windy drizzle to overcast to drizzle. I could, if I was to remain riding south, reach the Riviera in a few weeks. Might be nice in the Spring. I’ve never been to Morocco.
|Yep, that building in the background is a school. It had to be Germany.|
|The unfortunate name of a band|
The French were noticeably laisse-faire about the creation of bike lanes, which would disappear abruptly, terminate in tree stumps, linger meanderingly for a bit before petering out near some bollards. It was good preparation for what England had in store. Bike lanes in England drift and fade and weave, like dreams.
But before I made it to British shores, I had another mission to attend to. Because it meshed with the theme of marginalization which will be part of my book, and because my experience of Europe had been so patterned by the ‘crisis’, I felt an urge to visit the large refugee camp in Calais called the Jungle. As with the other occasions I visited projects focusing on the health of those on the edges of society, I will reserve my observations for the book.
The next day I boarded the ferry bound for Dover, which moved off at a rattle through the yellow-tan sea. The journey itself was imbued with little moments of weight and emotion, but that was only true for me and not the other passengers and staff, which was why the man at the information desk looked back at me oddly as I ogled him in wonder after he placed a shiny pound coin into my palm, change for a map of London, which I then received as one might the holy communion or a magic amulet.
Everything had the gloss of Britishness. Accents sounds more regional, even my own adapted and I was surprised to note I’d begun subconsciously to release a cockney twang, and I’m not even from London, I’m from the Home Counties, with a tragic non-accent. I guess my eyesight had changed on that bright blue day, seagulls twisting through the sky.
‘World Cyclist dies in first ever P&O ferry sinking 50 metres from port of Dover. Seagulls to blame’
The chalky cliffs appeared earlier than I’d anticipated, rising in froth-like welcome from a green sea. A fighter jet ripped the powder blue above the shore. The BBC and the Mail started reporting on my return. I couldn’t see the adulating crowds at Dover yet, but I was still a way off.
As I started to wheel my bike off the ferry a guard stopped me:
‘Sorry mate. You gotta wait til this lot get off (gesturing to the trucks). Health and Safety’
At this exact moment ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ began playing in my head.
‘If I let ya go, you see, you’ll get run over’
Not: you might get run over, but the promise I definitely would, seemed startlingly, attractively British in my awed and fragile state. I’d been gone six years. I could wait another ten minutes.
Ironically the most dangerous part was outside the port when I steamed off onto the right side of the road and almost hit a car. ‘Shit, left side, left side’ I scolded myself. I then got dishearteningly lost in Dover before finding somewhere to change the last of my Euros into pounds. I eyed up the revolving door of the currency exchange, pondering whether my bike would fit inside. ‘Just leave it there’ a man told me ‘who’d wanna nick that?’
The A2 was horrible, it proved just how hurried I was as I left the UK in 2010 to have actually chosen this nightmare. But I wanted to retrace the path I cut six years before – I had people to meet in Sittingbourne. I was cheered up momentarily by the return of a particularly virulent strain of the British Pun in the guise of a small car with a large opened-topped receptacle on the roof emblazoned with the words ‘Junk and disorderly. All Rubbish Cleared. We do wives, girlfriends, mothers-in-law, husbands, taxmen…etc’
I detoured though villages when I could, had a pint of ‘Old Dairy Ale’ in the Black Robin. The country continued to swell with English nuance. I expected the emotion of homecoming, but never so surreal, fuzzy, close. I eavesdropped, imbibed the snippets:
‘The problem with Clive is that he’s a lazy sod’
‘Bloody council! Same as always!’
‘I ain’t drunk ‘ere for ages. Not since it was pie-night’
Nobody recognized me from the BBC, even when I smiled expectantly at them until they frowned and told their children to look away. The barman, noticing my bike, eventually asked ‘been far then?’ I considered, for a nanosecond, false modesty, but shelved it.
‘For six years actually’
‘And five more continents!’
I am now an incorrigible twat. He commended me, though rightfully I should have been barred for smugness.
I felt the opposite of the tumult I’d experienced at my departure, I felt soothed even when I shouldn’t have, the white van drivers blissfully skimmed by, too close, the rogues! I stopped in a shop to ask the staff how far to Sittingbourne.
‘God couldn’t tell ya. 2 mile?’
‘Nah, about 6’ explained another.
Customers in the queue all then got involved, opinions oscillated from one to eight miles. These were local people! ‘Take bloody days if you wanted to walk it’ said the man who’d suggested it was 4 miles away. About an hour, actually, I thought.
On January 6th 2010 Kent was snow-covered, and children were on the attack, platoons of them flinging snowballs at me for miles. I was wet, tired and defeated, with nowhere to camp. And it was in Sittingbourne that Tommy and Roger, strangers, offered me a place to stay. It was the first of a long line of acts of hospitality, impossible, I’d assumed, in miserable England. ‘We just hope that people treat our kids the same way’ explained Tommy. I arrived back at their home six years later, perhaps a little more dilapidated than they remembered me, but a bed was made up, a cake was baked in my honour and my faith in humanity was assured.
Onward, through villages now, the gleam of the Thames estuary. I would have laughed at the state of British cycle lanes, if I wasn’t wincing because of them. Woefully buttock-bashing mockeries of the concept, they did nothing for my sense of pride in my home country. Honestly, in Gravesend the bike path gave all the smoothness of cyclocross on tarmac – the lanes were landscaped by tussocks, a lacework of tree roots and water-features, stamped by echoing potholes, muddled by random bits of curb, wheelie bins and parked cars. Near Dartford one bike lane took me a generous twenty metres before fading into car-ridden noise and desolation. They were so flagrantly atrocious; it became easy to assume they’d been deliberately sabotaged. I imagined two road workers:
‘Eh Dave, we should probably flatten this bit out’
‘What?! For cyclists! Wouldn’t bother’
‘Yeah, good point. Got any thumb tacks?’
‘Lets run that next bike lane along all those parked cars. That’ll fox em’
And while I’m on the subject, England, stop painting the odd bicycle onto the road – that’s not a bike lane, it’s just paint. In fact, save the money on paint, and invest it in something more useful, like Intensive Care beds for broken cyclists.
And England, what’s going on with the ‘no cycling’ signs? They arrive as soon as a bicycle lane ends, but without recourse or explanation. Rationally, the council must have installed teleporters that would transport a cyclist from that point to another where the cycle path restarts. Perhaps someone nicked the teleporter. It’s only logical. Unless… unless bike lanes in England are devised and created by half-hearted half-wits. The ‘no bicycles’ sign in this context cannot be reasonably assumed to mean ‘no cyclists’ but instead ‘from now on town planners will not be considering the possibility that cyclists exist.’ It’s a threatening chaos of misdirection and bafflements.
And we’ve got the money! We spend it on putting Ferris wheels in major cities. It’s embarrassing, having biked in Belgium, Holland and Germany. It got worse: cycle paths came with weird slanting gates that were designed apparently to prevent motorbikes entering but were so harrowingly narrow it was implausible to get bicycle handlebars through without a virtual war on geometry, and impossible with a loaded touring bike like mine. I had to cycle on roads, pissing off the drivers, but I wasn’t going to use the undulating ribbons of piteousness that Britiain calls bike paths. It’s insulting. It would be like going to restaurant; explaining to the waiter that you can’t eat the meat on the menu, you’re vegetarian, and being served a steaming cow pat fresh from the anus of a leprous bullock. Get stuck in!
Rant over. I apologise.
I wouldn’t mind but politicians go on and on about pandering to cyclists as if London was some sort of world capital of biking, as if the investment was anything approaching equivalent to our European neighbours, as if they give a shit! Cycling Super Highways! What the fuck! Super why? Because you’ve added a lick of blue paint! You can’t just call something ‘Super!!!!’ and expect it to become so, you incorrigible spin doctoring wankers!
I’m finished now, promise.
One more thing: What’s the deal with traffic islands? These spell death for cyclists! Do you honestly believe a motorist, by definition a morally heinous individual with no respect for all that’s good and proper in the universe, is going to sacrifice precious nanoseconds of their commute to slow down and not endanger the life of a cyclist? Of course they won’t! Stop putting them in!
I camped one final time, near Gravesend, waking to a frosty morning in a tent that glittered like the firmament, and a farmer who wanted to know what I was doing in his field, but seemed relaxed enough when I explained.
I stopped at the café on the way into London, the Crayside café, for a full English with bubble and squeak, minus black puddling (I’m emotional, not psychotic). The TV was on in the corner: David Cameron was engaged in talks with the EU. An interview began with a single mother turned cleptomaniac.
Shooters Hill revealed London city in its towered glory. In Blackheath I was passed by my very first hipster on a fixie. In Bermondsey an empty can of special brew stood aloof on a railing, like an artwork. I witnessed the robbing of a chemist by a drug addict near Greenwich. Finally I crossed London Bridge, became held up in traffic, and then made my way to Westminster where finally a member of the public, a passing jogger, recognized me as ‘that bloke in the news’. Good on him. I didn’t even have to stare furiously into his face.
I crossed the bridge at just after 1 pm and rolled into St Thomas’ Hospital where friends and family were there with a finish line, with Prosecco (the cheapskates) and masks of my own face, in cardboard. It was ace. It was also captured on video…
Seeing my mates again was the predictable blur of emotions. They seemed either to be married with children, or extremely active on something called Tinder. Several of us bowled down to the ITV studios for a newspiece, which was enjoyably alcohol-hazed. If, after going out and getting so smashed with my friends, I had lost my fully loaded bicycle and left it all night in a London alleyway, I would not admit it. But trust me when I say that this definitely did not happen.
A couple of days later I began to cycle back to my Mums house in Oxford, much of which was on unpaved tow paths which was the route suggested when I pressed the bicycle button on googlemaps. I became more mired in mud than at any time since the high Pamirs of Tajikistan. This, combined with the heady experience that is Slough, cemented my impression that homes are places you will always come to love and hate. Finally I came to Thame, and through a run of three villages, each a mile apart, that must have selected their names in the hopes no outsider would ever come and visit them. First came Shabbington, followed closely by Ickford and finally Worminghall. I looked to see if there was a Lake Sputumere, but couldn’t find it. To kill the final hout I tried to come up with taglines for their signposts ‘Shabbington. Please remove your coat tails.’ ‘Ickford, twinned with Ewford’ and ‘Worminghall. Drive slowly. Invertebrates at play.’
Next up: too much. I have to re-learn medicine (which feels a little like a car crash victim relearning how to walk), and judging by the textbooks I’ve flicked through, there are some long, long nights ahead. I’m beginning a new blog, writing a book, trying sports that don’t involve wheels, and soon I’m flying to Singapore to give a corporate expenses-paid presentation, cos that’s how I roll now. (Also I’m living at my mum’s, aged 35, and can’t yet afford jeans.)
Big thank you to all the friends and family who made it to the homecoming, you’re all brilliant.
|Land of hope and glory|
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