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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Tracks

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Thursday 03 August 2017: Melton Mowbray to Warlingham

13:37. Moving again. 30km. Melton to Leicester. Perfectly pleasant ride, given the fact we hadn’t ridden fully-laden for eleven days, and, despite one gentle ride at the weekend, had been fairly inactive – and softening.

The getaway was nice and smooth
until the moment we came to put the panniers on the bikes.

Yesterday evening, whilst packing as much as we could, I noticed an unfamiliar-looking screw on the bedroom floor. It may have dropped out of something when we were unpacking.

It’s an innocuous looking thing that may have dropped out of the spare bag of nuts and screws that we keep just in case. I’ll just pop it th…

Ah, the pannier with that in is in the garage. I’ll just pop it in here for now.

“Shit!”

As I went to attach the front-left pannier, five minutes away from departing exactly when we wanted. The bottom rail that holds the pannier onto the bottom part of the front rack: hanging loose at the hook end. I didn’t need to look at what kind of screw was missing.

I knew.

“Motherfucker!”

Let’s get a screw from elsewhere on the pannier and use it as a replacement for now.

“Motherfucker!” It’s come loose, but it won’t come out. May as well check all the others while we’re at it.

Good job we did.

“Motherfucker!” They all need tightening. On every pannier.
Ortleib: kings of the pannier – never heard about this before. Is it a thing?

It must be.

One Heath-Robinson patch up with a piece of string and we’re rolling. A little disconcerted at the thought that the panniers are not as infallible as I’d thought, but what can you do? And it seems like gravity does more of the job than the hook, so…

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“It’s raining.”
“It’s only drizzle – not worth bothering about.”
“True, but there’s no let up in the clouds. We’re just going to keep running into it.”

We did. Not more than three minutes later, the drizzle became a downpour.

“I’m stopping.” To poncho.

“Where is it?”

“Motherfucker!”

In one of the more accessible panniers.
Yes, that front one now bound up a little more with some twine.

Still, we got it off and got in to get ponchoed and waterproof-trousered

And had a quick snack: we’d been riding for practically an hour, so why not?

The rain’s stopped. Of course, England and its bloody showers.

But we got to Leicester well on time for an easy wait for our train.

~~~~~~~

Now we sit. Uneasy. Uneasily waiting to meet our bikes again at St. Pancras. Hastily chucked into the bike hole on this train. Glad you don’t have to pay for that indignity on British trains. Hold tight Finkel, hold tight Einhorn: we’re thinking of you. It won’t be long.

~~~~~~~

And they stood
all the way!?

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Oh, I’m so proud. They grow up so quickly these days, don’t they 😁

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.

Twists and Turns

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Monday 17 July 2017: Aachen to Asse [Part 2]

11:08am.

machines are great…

Lifts to Platforms One to Eight at Aachen Station: no problem.

…when they’re working.

Lift Nine, with two/three minutes to go until the train departs: out of order.

“Motherfucker.”

~~~~~~~

To avoid embarrassment, confusion, trepidation and frustration when using their otherwise efficient railway network, I would advise Deutsche Bahn to instigate standardisation training for the staff who provide tickets and ticket information.

Having said that, why are all the carriages raised above or are lower than the level of the platform? Not easy to get fully laden bikes on and off; and what about wheelchair users or parents with prams or pushchairs?

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16:00. Brussels.

Change of plan. We’re bicycle tourers again.

Timetabled Events

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Sunday 16 July 2017: Nürnberg to Aachen

11:40am. Back at Nürnberg Main Station after a pleasant enough night at a typical, neat, functional travellers’ overnight hotel. €96 for a double room and breakfast, but you can’t put a price on a good night’s sleep sometimes, especially in situations that are maybe draining on you in other ways; and the area around the Main Station at 1am on a Saturday evening was full of the usual casualties and suspects, so, despite there being a visible police presence, I doubt we’d have got much in the way of a peaceful night’s sleep between us; and the standard over-indulgent hotel breakfast will stand us in good stead, particularly after our day of empty food and spontaneity yesterday.

We made almost 500k, though: not bad when you consider it took us over 60 minutes to find a way to get out of Vienna, let alone finding ourselves in Germany on a Sunny Sunday morn’.

Just over 800k to Calais now: will probably be a stretch to reach there today, so I think we’d be happy if we cover a pretty similar distance, which would leave us with an overnight within spitting distance of it – and the ferry.

We’d still have 300k from Dover, which is no small thing, but given the fact we’d be on the right patch of land, and the one upon which I roamed for almost 30 years, it would already feel like job done; though I’ve got to say I like the idea of cycling there less than the idea of anywhere in the world – now why would that be, especially as that’s where I spent a childhood nurturing my love of bike-rides?

Connections

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Saturday 15 July 2017: Vienna to Nürnberg

“Introduce a little variety.”

Never ones to allow things to get stale, we now find ourselves on our second, of what promises to be who-knows-how-many trains to, well, ultimately Calais; then, from Calais, to Dover

… by ferry

… hopefully.

Since Thursday a new, not entirely unexpected, but not the less unpleasant for that, sense of drama and emotion has been injected into the mix.

On an already emotionally tumultuous morning, whose occurrence feels spooky with hindsight, as the Czech/Austrian border lay less than 150 metres from me, the phone rang.

My sister.

I knew.

Mum.

Twenty-nine months after the first phone-call, when I began the process of grieving the essence of my mum, the moment her fighting physical form gave signs of resignation towards maintaining itself.

According to my sister, it could be as little as 24 hours.

This is the kind of information you feel you should be able to do something with. On a bike between two countries you have never called home, with nothing any longer like a home in the traditional bricks and mortar sense lying anywhere, with all that we own packed into the panniers attached to the only other concrete material things we possess, I didn’t know what I was supposed to do, or what I could do.

I knew that I had to get to England as soon as possible, for as long as necessary. I knew that I was in no situation at all to be able to drop everything, pause life here and fly there. This just wasn’t possible. The only option, which I guess made it a kind of solution, was to keep moving forward, play it by ear and cross the most appropriate bridge when the river presents itself.

On we went.

Having been put in touch with them through something of a European middleman for permaculture projects and eco-communities, Benjamin Smit – thank you Benjamin, and then checking out their online profile as nomadic souls who had met somewhere along their paths, settled down, and retained and developed their free-living spirit, I had been looking forward to meeting our hosts for the evening, Lisa and Joey. Different people, likeminded souls. It would be a shame if I couldn’t fully engage with my present due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control. But what will be will be: it will just be a question of paying respect to both moments as far as is possible.

We arrived in Mailberg, and what a beautiful warm welcome from the abundance of life in their home – from flora to fauna.

~~~~~~~~~~

The ride to Vienna was beautiful indeed; from the simply functional exactly-what-the-doctor-ordered breakfast; to the climbing up to greet the Alps; to the exciting descents, and the tailwind-assisted roll into Vienna; to sharing the way with the impressive Danube – wow! impressively set and impressive in size, and a great cycle path alongside it to enjoy it: you can certainly feel how Vienna came to be such an economic and political powerhouse with such a river to service its settlers.

And the arrival came. Another welcoming us as a friend, as we slung our things inside her cool tenement apartment in the heart of the city.

The evening was kept simple with a couple of beers at a Hofbrau place just a hop and a skip from the flat. Then bed beckoned: the blow-up mattresses serving us indoors as well as out.

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As the morning opened up to let us in

a beep from my phone.

About a day and a half from the call came the text to confirm the feeling:

mum’s body had passed.

The river was here, but no bridge to be seen: you just look where you want to be and build it yourself.

England? From Vienna? Where will A stop? When are the flights? really infrequently; like two times a week; and we really can’t hang on, indefinite in time, waiting for the time the body’s cleared for the funeral.

Make our way to Bratislava. By the time we get there – 24 hours, we may know more. I can fly; A can stay and … or maybe steadily creep back to Poland’s door, where we can kick our heels while waiting for the call.

A plan.

Yes, a plan.

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Vienna we enjoy as best we can, with a semblance of normality; and, to be honest, the powerful architecture did its job turning introspection into admiration. But with emotions so high, through this and through that, we tired soon and thoughts turned to food and beer.

A meal was cooked, and beer was drunk,
and a chilled evening smoothed edges,
and a hazy sleep came and welcomed me in
Making films out of childhood heroes.

I awoke feeling smooth,
until a little jar jagged
and all that was gone was returned.
And my partner in time echoed my mind
We’re going to England together.

The journey we’re on is always the one
We go where it takes us together.
The form may now change
as time rears its essence,
but it’s on the same path we set out.

We set out June 30.
Since then, more than ever
Plans became plots
that circumstance chose to deny
Neusiedler See
turned to Bratislava
Pausing our journey together

We continue along united
Together from here to there

And here was Vienna
and there is England
with who-knows-what in between?
And ferries and riding
with all that we have
Nomadic, with a geographical purpose.

Part of the journey
that makes up a life
Negotiating unforeseen corners

Respecting the life that passed in the night
to share in the love of close family
My partner in time beside me
The way that our path has to take

And feelings so right can’t be wrong

We can all make plans and prepare, but life has to be lived as it is experienced; not as an idea on a piece of paper.
As we set off to a club from our separate lives back in the Spring of 2000 till we closed the doors on our flat in Kraków, we’ve been journeying together one way or another.
This is just a little more overt in nature.

Now we carry all that we have
One place to the next
Sharing the life that we share

And this takes us there
And that brought us here
And onwards our little trip goes

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22:27. We are on train number #4 from Plattling to Regensberg, where we hope to catch a connection to Nürnberg, which is due to arrive at 1am. It looks like we’ll be stuck there until morning, so a rough night in and around the station in prospect, but this is just another tale in a relationship involving some less than conventional travelling arrangements; though having the bikes with us (of course!), but as stationary baggage rather than baggage-and-person steeds, takes this out of the Planes, Trains and Automobiles category into some kind of challenge.

But we’re good at this – I think all humans are: our flexibility and our adaptability are two of our key strengths as a species. While many may fear being plunged into the unknown and having to constantly think on their feet to get from here to where they think they’d like to be, I think this is actually where the vast majority of us shine and thrive and feel alive live live.

Maybe that’s why we set out to do what we’re doing; and why this step needs to be seen as it is: as just another part of the journey, which will become part of the narrative; part of the lives.

Not that it really matters how it’s seen, in terms of a picture. It will, however, be a piece, and though, like all of the pieces, it will stand on its own with life of its own, without it, the space that will be left, the hole that will remain, will forever diminish the value of anything coming thereafter.

As you honour the past that allowed you to be, to lend love and support to significant others, all that speaks to me is love, though not in the abstract I share and feel every day, but in the visceral way that can sometimes burn, can sometimes sting, but is the love come of blood that is life.

And we go to celebrate and honour it – as we should and as we want.

I love you mum x

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