Looking Back on England
Updated: Jun 1, 2018
(Oli) 17th Feb: we were staying at my parents’ house in South Wraxall. They were away overnight, due to meet us a pub for lunch the next day for a final family goodbye. We could spread gear everywhere & dash around madly if need be. I remember wanting to be focused on efficient packing and leaving on time. And obviously that all went to pot. As well as packing we wanted to see a handful of people that Saturday; Ruth’s parents for dinner and our friends, Sam & George, for a drink at the Stumble Inn. I tried to relax but felt preoccupied by the questions; ‘what else do we need to do?’ and ‘Have we forgotten anything?’ According to other touring cyclists, leaving was the hardest part so with that in mind I wanted to be productive; to get final pre-trip jobs done effectively. The trip didn’t worry me as such. I felt in the zone! But I was worried people would be a distraction or feel neglected. When my younger brother Richard and his fiancé Catrin had mentioned joining us in South Wraxall I declared they were obviously welcome but we might not pay them much attention. It seems bizarre looking back, but completing pannier-specific itemised Excel spreadsheets felt like a vital task and seeing loved ones was a bonus or a hassle. I can’t remember quite which way I felt about it to be honest. In the end I did relax & was able to stop packing mentally as well as physically. It was great to see our friends and family and I’m so grateful people were around. We got back to South Wraxall late that Saturday evening and even though we still hadn’t quite finished the spreadsheet (never since referred to), I remember feeling really happy, sat in the kitchen at Mum and Dad’s house with Ruth, Richard and Catrin, chatting about their wedding plans and probable house-move over a cup of tea. Richard had hot chocolate of course. He always does. It’s a smell I associate with him. 18th Feb: It’s about quarter to seven. Ruth’s sleepy. I'm wired and excited. Still a few things to chuck into a bag. My brother and Catrin have made us a delicious breakfast of thick Aga toast, mushrooms, and avocado. It sits, one bite in, neglected on the kitchen table whilst I orbit it, dedicated aimlessly to too many tasks at once. Our first day will take us to Standlake in Oxfordshire where we’ll stay with some much loved friends; Ellen and Tom. Before that we’re due to meet Jake and Matt from Bristol Bicycles and our combined families at a pub in Cricklade for an early lunch at 12.30. The pub is either called the Red Lion or the White Hart. If this was Who Want’s To Be A Millionaire I would opt for the Red Lion. Jake, Matt, and Grant (Ruth’s dad) were all hoping to cycle the first part of the day with us but unfortunately everybody is either battling or recovering from some kind of knock-out flu so in the end it’s just the two of us. It’s a nice Sunday morning overall and perhaps a little easier as we only have ourselves to consider. Ric and Catrin take a photo for us to send to kindness.org: we pose together with the two loaded bikes and an old Etchasketch toy, upon which is scrawled ‘we choose kindness’ in keeping with our partner non-profit’s recent social media campaign. As she presses the shutter on the final picture Catrin brilliantly announces that she & my little brother are expecting a baby. It’s a moment I’ll never forget; my whole body felt light & flushed with love for them both. I looked up at the sky and felt a smile spread across my face that I can still feel in the muscle memory of my cheeks and jaw. Even more adrenaline and excitement to pump us up! At around 0830 I head outside to put the fully packed panniers into Catrin’s car. We plan to cycle the morning free of all baggage and then collect it at the Red Lion. I’m still too distracted to sit down and finish my toast properly so it comes with me. Catrin appears at the back door and passes on a message from Ruth, who’s upstairs somewhere: "Er, Ol, there’s a BBC Points West cameraman is in South Wraxall village hall car park." ‘WTF!’ Sam and George had arrived in the car pack down the road. They had come to give us a final friendly hug and wave. And they’d just texted Ruth to let her know they weren’t alone. Ruth had shouted downstairs to Catrin. And Catrin had come outside to tell me. A cameraman from the local news had been talked about but they hadn’t confirmed so we’d assumed nobody was going to come and document our grand departure. Chaos. Panniers come back out of the car and onto the bikes. The laden bikes paint a picture. Without them we look less than ordinary. There’s no way Points West are here for any other than the full set-up. We hoped to leave by nine in order we make the pub by half twelve. This now looks less likely. It’s now 0845 and I’m leaning over my bike dangling a overweight pannier in the general direction of a front rack whilst trying to eat the toast. Richard brings me the phone and takes the toast away again. BBC Radio Wiltshire are on the line for us. I’d forgotten they were going to have us on their Sunday morning show. We chat randomly about the forthcoming adventure and a priest says a prayer for us live on air. The presenters seem lovely but to be honest I’m only half concentrating. I can remember the phone being clamped between my cheek and shoulder whilst the bike rocked on its kickstand more clearly than I can remember what we actually talked about. Phone slipping. Bikes wobbling. Prayer. Conversation over. Bikes loaded: they’re heavy. Too heavy? Who knows; let’s face it, besides a handful of rides in Wales the week before we’ve never really handled this much baggage. We’re total amateurs. Eventually, a few minutes after nine, we roll away. It takes us all of a minute to reach the village hall where we see Sam, George, Ric and Catrin. "Is this it?” A fair question from the politely underwhelmed reporter. We hadn’t exactly promised them bunting and flags but I’m sure they imagined a bit more than two mid-twenties couples and a dog. He records a few takes of us leaving. A bemused looking old man from my parents’ village turns up. And I remember a fleet of colourful lycra-clad road cyclists tearing past the entrance to the village hall and thinking to myself ’that would have been the shot’. Never mind; it was fun nonetheless, and finally we’re away. Forty five minutes late. Headed for a dog friendly pub in Cricklade that will be filled with our sickly family members and bike-shop friends. Richard and Catrin overtake us just beyond the next village to lighten our load. Panniers go back in the car. Catrin passes me the toast they made me an hour and a half earlier. It’s still delicious. The cycle to the pub is exciting because we’re alone and on our way but largely uneventful. It’s a mild February day; not to cold, not too windy. Probably perfect for cycling. A morning that other, more experienced, cyclists might have even selected with that in mind. In our case it was just good luck. Lunch at the pub is another emotionally chaotic memory for me. I remember feeling like an absent host for the final twenty kilometres of our morning ride. We arrive just over an hour late. The restaurant part of the pub apparently isn’t dog friendly which means our families are divided for the meal part of our lunchtime send-off. Dad-David seems agitated by our lateness and despite being pleased to see us he definitely quick-marches us into the pub. (He had been the one to advance-call regarding dog-friendliness). Dad-Grant seems ok but he and Karen were still recovering from illness; they’d walked the whippets in from about a mile out of Cricklade so were stuck in the pro-dog bar for lunch whilst the rest of us ate in the anti-dog restaurant next door. Sickly families, sickly bike-shop friends, and a divided party. Not ideal but after food we did manage to get everyone, dogs included, round a big table in the bar for a drink. Nothing was exactly going to plan but everything was lovely; is this a sign of things to come? We take a big group picture outside the pub & get on our way again. It’s dark by the time we arrive at Ellen & Tom’s in Standlake. Els, one of my favourite people on the planet, is eight months pregnant and huge by this point. We eat a dinner of noodles, veg, and pad choi and then sit either side of Els with our hands on the bump. He (now Ori) kicks a bit as we chat. El’s mum, Mandy is there too. And also Pyotr & Emo, two PAs we've met several times before. It’s a really lovely evening & I fall asleep besides Ruth feeling very lucky to know the people we’ve seen over the course of the day. The next morning we eat some tasty eggs and point our bikes towards Leighton Buzzard. The next day is still adrenaline fuelled. We stay with Ruth’s Uncle near Leighton Buzzard on the Monday, where we meet her brother, Adam, and his fiancé, Freja for a pub dinner. A second family send-off & another lovely evening. Day Three is windy and tough going. I’m anxious about time still. Ruth’s legs are aching. Prior to this she’s only ever cycled two long days in a row. And 'Day Three' has a notorious ring to it from what we’ve read online. Before we left I thought it might be like a long walk; you find a comfortable pace for the entire party, you don't try to match the pace of the fastest member. However I was finding it hard not to want to push us forwards. The loaded bikes are so cumbersome and I’m not as nimble as when hiking. Waiting or going slower means I don’t ever quite warm up which makes me grumpy. And on top of this Tuesday is the first time we will stay with Warm Showers hosts. Joe and Verity from Stansted Mountfichet. A town we’d never heard of. It seemed funny to us that we are about to circumnavigate the world and yet there are pockets of England we haven’t ever seen. Warm Showers is an online community of cyclists hosting other cyclists; a bit like Couch Surfing but for bikes. I remember thinking that if somebody we had never met before is willing to open their door to us, feed us and generally look after us, the least we can do is arrive roughly on time. But at the same time I wanted us to enjoy ourselves and didn't want to become a nagging non-fun half of the couple. Ruth has never claimed athleticism or endurance cycling among her skillset. She’s perfect for this kind of adventure for many other reasons but knows she’ll find it physically challenging. And fair enough; we’re about to pedal bikes weighing half our body-weight around the world. Despite knowing all this and appreciating that we’ve already cycled a fair way in 48 hours I can’t help but feel frustrated over the course of the afternoon, as tired legs, wind and traffic gradually beat us down. All this melts away when in the dark on the side of a hard-shoulder-less, pot-holey A-Road in rush hour, Ruth ends up in tears. We’d been pedalling uphill against the wind for miles with vehicles of all shapes and sizes passing us far too fast and far too close. We have lights. We have hi-vis. We are entitled to be on this road too. I’ve cycled a lot in the UK so feel used to it but it isn’t in any way enjoyable. It’s not until we reach mainland Europe that I realise how awful driver vs cyclist culture is in England. I hold Ruth tightly and we decide to find the nearest train station and skip a few miles. We send numerous text messages to our hosts; ‘pedalling slower than expected/didn’t anticipate headwinds/very sorry etc etc’ and pick up a bunch of petrol station roses as a combined 'thank you/nice to meet you/sorry again' gesture. It feels like the least we can do. A smiling Joe meets us in the car park of the local station. We hurl the panniers into his car and cycle the remaining couple of miles to their house. The bikes couldn’t have felt weirder, now unwieldy and loose without the ballasting weight of the panniers. By the time we reach Joe and Verity’s house and I have mixed feelings. We had written to them a few days earlier to ask if we could stay; our first Warm Showers hosts of the year long trip that lay ahead. Somehow this felt like a failure. They were a similar age to us and I didn’t want them to think we couldn’t do it or that we didn’t know what we were doing. And yet we’d called them late in the evening, defeated by wind and traffic, from a train station. I got over it pretty quickly. Ruth was happy to be inside and I was warming to the idea. It was late but we were soon showered and sat in clean clothes, eating huge bowls of spaghetti round a table with our hosts. I can’t remember what we talked about, suffice to say we were chattering away deliriously. I remember lying in bed with Ruth afterwards; she was laughing and saying ‘I can’t believe I said that!’ A scene that would recur several times over the next few weeks as we travelled through Europe, meeting and staying with new people. There is something hysterical that seems to happen when gratitude and good food mix on an empty stomach after a long day on the bike. We really like Joe and Verity. He is a teacher and she works for a law firm in London. Their house is cosy and full of beautiful things they’ve bought for each other over the years. On the kitchen wall there is a chunky deep-set clock with mechanised clouds and other moving weather motifs. Upstairs in our room there are nicely mounted, grainy, black and white photos of past cycle trips in Italy. Although I feel excited and certain about the year ahead, I wonder whether we’ll ever have a home like this; with rooms that feel welcoming, happy, and full of love. Later this year Joe and Verity will begin their own trip from England to India. We will think of them frequently I’m sure. Looking back we are both so glad to have stayed with them. We’ve experienced such incredible hospitality across Europe and it would be easy to assume that British people aren’t as good at hosting strangers. Whilst spontaneous effortless hospitality is more common in Turkey, where we are at the moment, Joe and Verity are a reminder that people back home can also open up doors to strangers: to feed them, make the laugh, and send them on their way feeling better than when they arrived. 24 hours later we find ourselves on the Harwich to Hook of Holland ferry. It’s Day 4. Goodbye England. Netherlands here we come!