Poseidon’s Caprice

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Friday 04 August 2017: Warlingham to Dieppe

9:04. We sit outside a Co-Op, just inside Croydon, picking up some supplies to keep us going till we set rubber on French soil again. Dieppe is today’s destination, all being well. A long stretch: sounds like real bicycle touring, doesn’t it?

We’re cheating.

In order to be able to catch our ferry at 5:30pm from Newhaven, we have to train from East Croydon to Lewes, where we’ll then ride the remaining 12k-or-so. So we’ve got a double-decker sandwich of one train journey and a ferry ride between three slices of riding. Phew, metaphors are tiring; probably more tiring than today’s small skips.

Did well yesterday, though, after ten non-touring days. Around 60km in total, and six hours saddle-time. Navigating our way out of London was hella fun, but intricate and time-consuming to the max (four hours to get from St Pancras to Warlingham); exactly the same distance as our ride into Leicester in the morning – more than double the time. Would you Adam and Eve it? 🙃

But, a fun ride. Feels nice to have done a proper ride through the capital: making our way from its beating heart, through the districts, through the outskirts, until we exited Greater London into the beautifully green and rurally feeling setting of Warlingham. So many flavours in one afternoon. Really got to feel the place much much more than any of my other visits there.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the only way to experience the world is on a bicycle.

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Perfectly pleasant little bike-skip to East Croydon Station. Perfectly deflating train journey to Lewes – such tolerant, patient, understanding people amongst the passengers aboard 🤔 Hope the coffee I’m waiting for outside this café is able to reflate. Also hope it’s the last train for a while.

One more unavoidable encounter with public transport in a few hours: the ferry.

Newhaven’s a little under 60 minutes away. It’s 12:27 now. We’re supposed to check in at about 15:30, even though it isn’t due to leave until 17:30, so plenty of time. Of course, have been stung more often than once by last-minute hiccups announcing themselves at the worst possible moment – we all have – but, barring a pannier – the pannier – falling off … or a puncture … or getting lost, we should be fine.

And the chances of these things happening are slim slim slim.

“But there are chances.”

Shut up, brain!

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17:34. Sitting on board. Finkel and Einhorn sit below, sandwiched between a multitude of other people’s steeds. Not all tourers, but Ortleibs were conspicuous by their ubiquitous presence on the racks of those with racks. Other riders were clearly off to France for some road-riding; others for touring; others bike-packing. I heard Spanish and Italian amongst us – and it felt good to be part of the weirdo bike brigade boarding together in formation as bemused drivers gazed on.

Before we got on, I heard one rider say he’d done this crossing a number of times – and you just chuck the bikes in a place and leave them. Then I got distracted and missed the bit where he mentioned how they are secured and you leave them with great peace of mind.

That’s because he didn’t say it!

Yup, all leaning on each other – at the mercy of Poseidon. Einhorn is on some Spanish guy’s bike, Finkel’s on Einhorn, but a lesser known bike leans on him.

Solidarity two-wheeled wonders! Look after each other as we would look after you.

I hate leaving my bike unattended; and with the rear panniers and dry-bag attached, too. That’d be some stuff to lose. But we’re all (ahem) in the same boat, so hope this goodness of strangers prevails.

Four hours is a long time. Bagsy first one down when we near Dieppe!

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Off Road

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Friday 21 July 2017: Gravelines to Canterbury

11:35am. We sit on deck – on a ferry! Seven days and two hours later, after receiving the news on a sunny morning in Vienna, we have travelled to Nuremberg by five trains, Aachen by four trains, and Brussels by two trains, whereupon we sacked that method of transport and returned to the essence – and cycling 😁

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A great route through the Kent countryside up to Canterbury.

Beautiful.

For the first time in a while, whilst being in England, nostalgia kicked in as we pushed up and rolled down hills that ticked every cliché of the England I hold in the heart of the kid who spent Summer after Summer during the school holidays on bike-ride adventures with friends.

This was, yes, the England of my childhood (even though it was my first time in this part of it) and many a tourist brochure. Yes, it is only a small picture, but it is a beautiful one, and a wonderfully warm way to return to these shores.

Life is beautiful when you get off the main roads.

Impressions

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Thursday 20 July 2017: Schoorbakkehoeve to Gravelines

Today we entered France and, boy, had we been spoilt by Belgium!

Ubiquitous cycle lanes and easy riding gave way to:

  • ubiquitous cars speeding past us on a narrow dual-laned highway.
  • a fierce headwind that seemed determined to blow us back to where we came. All day!
  • navigating around, to, through or past, Dunkerque: a puzzle set to ‘Sherlock’ setting; though maybe that’s a wrong metaphor as there appeared no logic on display to unschooled outsiders.
  • the multinational cemetery standing sombre testament to life and the living world we share.
  • the town we went through that didn’t have wi-fi!?!
  • the town with the ominous-sounding name, ‘Gravelines’ – we’re on our way to a funeral! – which, after much cold (dis)functionality, warms the heart with its more quaintly feel of a community evolved naturally rather than conceived to serve an industry.
  • the next day waking up, where I noticed that when I enter another country during the day, I feel a certain sense of displacement or dislocation, but upon waking up there, I’m immediately at home … for a short while only, as in one short ride and a ferry skip across the sea, we’ll be in England – and home.

And what a welcome it was!

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Bicycles and Croissants

Tuesday 18 July 2017: Asse to Aalter-Brug

So ‘Bicycles, Trains, Trains and More Trains’ has turned into ‘Bicycles, Lots of Trains and Back to Bicycles’.

We arrived in Brussels early yesterday afternoon – after disembarking our eleventh train since mid-Saturday afternoon, spunking €500 on tickets for the stress-inducing privilege, plus €200 in hotels, and around €100 in sundry employing-more-typical-means-of-travel expenses – with a renewed sense of vigour.

Some way into Belgium our proximity to the UK seemed heightened. As the more clearly Germanic architecture gave way to the more delicate, bricky houses of Belgium, something suggested home wasn’t as far as it had been when we mounted the train in Austria.

Its geography seemed easier to navigate, too. Zeebrugge announced itself, and the sentiment: “I’ve had enough of trains,” had already been expressed and shared along the way. “Maybe rather than getting at least a couple more trains to Calais, we can ride some of the way? And how far is Zeebrugge? there are also ferries to the UK from there.”

‘Zeebrugge and ferry’ will always be imprinted on my mind due to the one that went down in February 1987 at a similar hour to me rousing to a kind of consciousness in an ambulance, and then a hospital, following a rather spectacular – I can only speculate, as I wasn’t able to witness it, obviously – motorcycle accident.

We referred again to maps.me. Despite its flaws, it has proved a useful tool to have so far. Zeebrugge: just up the coast from Dunkirk and Calais, and we wouldn’t really be going out of our way to get there. Also, it arrives in the North of England, and working our way South to Melton Mowbray would be preferable to North and having to circumnavigate London.

The ferry takes a considerably longer route, but there’d be fewer days riding in England; plus, we could stop this train-business in Brussels, ride to Gent, stop overnight there, then on to Zeebrugge some time Tuesday. The only thing is: I’m not sure if the ferries that go from there take bicycles on board as they are. When we get to Brussels, we’ll head straight for a cafe and make use of their wi-fi to check.

Negotiating our way out of Brussels Central Station, disappointingly, was not that easy with fully-laden touring bikes. With lifts to platforms in Germany already providing challenges there, and locating ways to get to ground level here, we got a tiny insight into the kinds of challenges that wheelchair-users face every day! Not easy. Your ease of access is much more restricted than I think you would imagine; and in countries like Germany or in a central European hub such as Brussels you’d think that facilities would be better than most. If they are, Jesus! Much much much more needs to be done. Much!

I digress.

We sat in an overpriced cafe drinking overpriced cappuccinos – not eating, as it was so ‘drogo’, as Agnieszka had said to me in Polish to disguise our embarrassment for only ordering what we did amongst the flows of free-spending tourists. It was a good coffee, but a bad cappuccino. I’d have begrudged €1 from a vending machine – but €3.50?!

Still, we were there for the wi-fi. Zeebrugge. Ferries. Aha, P+O go from there, so the bicycle option is an option. Let me just check how much. “Jesus, it’s a lot more expensive than Calais.”

“How much?”

“For one, £175. That works out at about €400 for both of us.” Agnieszka’s face sank in a way that steals the joy from your soul when you see it in a loved one.

We both started manically doing sums, working out various permutations until we reached the conclusion that, wherever we travelled from or to, on our present course of trains, trains and hotels, we were fucked!

This was fucking up our finances. Big time! Smashing them. With no idea of the day or date the funeral would be as of yet, we had no idea how long we’d have to stay in the UK stringing out the meagre amount of money we’d have left.

Fuck, we may not even have enough money to get out of England. It all became too much. The adrenalin and the emotion of the previous days flattened and tumbled out of us. Hope and optimism vanished. We clawed at alternatives, desperately, frantically, trying to maintain at least  our position on this smooth road that had suddenly become a vertical cliff-face.

It was a moment of clarity and a moment of crisis.

It was a necessary moment when we returned to defining our lives and situation rather than being defined (too much) by them.

Despite ourselves, as the goal of being back in England became paramount, rather than ‘just’ travelling from here to there to here, we had silently slipped back into dependence on the illusion of convenience – the convenience that comes at such a cost the more ‘convenient’ it is – and the whole convenient lifestyle it condones, fosters and nurtures as part of its package.

We were bicycle tourers and travellers: this was our way of life. And here we had been, since the realisation that England had emerged on the horizon, travelling expensively and uncomfortably (I like trains, but with a fully-laden touring bike they’re not fun) on innumerable trains; therefore buying and eating overpriced and life-destroying crap for our stomachs, and  checking into overpriced hotels along the way.

How quickly we had reverted to Western-Consumer-Type! How easy, once you buy into one part of the system, all the other parts seem so unavoidable, too! How quickly, aside from taking the bikes with us, we had abandoned bicycle travelling when travelling was imperative! Oh, there were extenuating circumstances that had taken over, sure, but we had abandoned so much so quickly; or, at least, lost sight briefly of who we were.

We had, of course, planned to cycle when in England while we could, but were letting our desperation to be on hand in the UK when need be over-ride any other concerns … or even logic.

And it was costing us. This was not who we were – we were bicycle tourers. We were already travelling, pointing our bikes forwards. We had been told on numerous occasions that time was not of the essence. We were carrying everything we needed to travel from A to B, and stop, and go and stop again.

We were exhausting ourselves – spiritually, emotionally, physically, financially – for what? We had achieved a little speed. We had shot through much of the beauty that is Germany. We were nearer a goal, but losing ourselves.

And the goal was ill-defined, in terms of time.

And means.

We are bicycle tourers…

…and we are on our way!

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15:55. Gent. Break. Due to odometer issues – ‘Sigma’ is Latin for ‘unreliable piece of shit’: maybe should’ve checked that before I bought it – I can’t be very precise as to the number of kms we’ve covered or to the amount of time we’ve been rolling, but it’s been fairly easy going: Belgium isn’t known for its mountains or hills. We’ve been riding on and off, on our third significant break, since about 9:30am, so maybe four hours of riding and close to 50k would be a fair estimate.

Just stopped for a vital refuel and refresh, and to work out today’s kind-of target – Aalter Brug. About another 30k and maybe three hours max’ of riding – to find somewhere to camp, which doesn’t feel easy in Belgium: every inch of land feels like it’s been bought by, sold to or allotted to someone. Doesn’t feel like there is much public land, at least, not in the areas we’ve travelled so far.

Think it’s a question of just getting somewhere and asking around: we did OK last night, asking a helpful guy, Peter, who, despite being unsure how to react at first when we asked him about camping possibilities in the area, hesitatingly offered us a spot in one of his fields – he looks after competition horses.

As we have found to be the case so far when asking for a patch of land to pitch our tent, after a while our hosts begin to develop a sense of responsibility towards us and feel that they should offer us more. In Czechia it was the lady mentioning bicycle storage, use of the toilet, then bringing us the chairs to sit on; here it was, again, the toilet, asking if the noise from his water-sprinkler was OK – it was – asking if we need electricity to charge our devices, and the sweet surprise this morning when we opened our tent to discover two fresh croissants from a local bakery sitting outside waiting for us.

Lovely.

Fingers crossed for tonight; you never know in this game.