The People in Our Paths #2

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Sunday 23 July 2017: Canterbury to Melton Mowbray [Part 2]

16:50. Market Place, Melton.

Nine days since receiving the confirmation. Ten days since receiving the warning about what was happening and wondering how in the hell we’d get from there to here.

We’re here.

We’ve journeyed across five countries, almost incidentally, in order to do so.

Despite the circumstances that impelled the detour, we’ve been able to take in: the fabulous riding experience that is Belgium, the scarily erratic to quirkily quaint North of France, the real beauty of Kent, and the, to be fair, not-too-shabby scenery surrounding my old stomping grounds.

The bicycle moments of feeling a place on all of the senses would have been tragic to miss on a headlong, blind dash here. We’ve felt and experienced them together, as we always intended to try and do once we made our first tentative steps towards achieving this way of life a little over two years ago.

Every cloud. As always.

And there would always have been a feeling that some of the world was missing if we’d never made it to England on our outing, so something else to appreciate.

And, of course, last but not least – people: the kindness and generosity of people.

Through our mediated lives, we are led to believe that the world is populated by untold monsters, psychos and fanatics ready to take your life, your belongings or your principles at the drop of a hat.

Then you get out and you meet people; you open your need to people; your self to people. Love is returned and is never the less touching for being much more ubiquitous than our subscriber channels would like us to believe.

Thank you so so much: Peter and family in Asse, Isabelle and Tom in Aalter-Brug, restaurant-lady in Schoorbakkehoeve, and Chris and Caroline in Canterbury. You warmed our hearts on our mini-odyssey here.

Now to family I see all too rarely, so, despite the circumstances, I hope we’re able to enjoy some quality moments together.

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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.

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.