Day 156 – onwards…

Day 156 – onwards.
Staying in London. A few days off.

We partied through into the night and the boys showed me some of the new extensions to the business they’d helped build as well as drowning me with alcohol.
The next day I’d agreed to meet Kit (the first host of the trip in Kent) on his radio show. I’d been to see him on the radio before I left, so we felt it was fitting that I see him again when I got back. Not only that, but it was his last show for this station (NTS) so we felt we couldn’t have tied it up better.
I cycled there from Hackney Wick and then we had a coffee and a catch up afterwards and talked about ideas how things had changed, what was going on in London and the things I’d experienced.
Being around english people and accents was still a novelty and I found it a hugely entertaining. As I walked around a bin man on the way there he said “Sorry guv’nah” for having caused an obstruction. I could’ve hugged him.

That night was a friends leaving do. She was leaving to go work in L.A. for a while and I had just got back, so it seemed fitting to combine the two things. I asked her before if she was okay with it and she said not to be silly. I caught up with my friends that I moved to London years ago, my core group if you like that I had known for about seven years. It was great to see them all again and debunk any myths about the trip and hear about what everyone was up to and their plans going into winter.
We went back to the bar I came into last night (Crate) as it was nearby and there were people to see there too, then onto a warehouse party nearby.

The rest of my time there was spent catching up with other friends, having coffee, breakfasts old friends, and more parties. I stayed with a friend in Hackney Wick for about five days in a messy transitional haze.
I caught up with other friends over pub lunches and friends from previous bars where they were working. There wasn’t enough time to do everything, but the five days I was there went by in a huge blur.

The one thing I did want to do while I was here and fit was the London to Brighton cycle. I’d tried to do it a few years ago with friend, but he got a flat a few miles out and we had to get the train in.
I had all the kit and was in good shape, so on the last day before leaving I set off around 2pm and was there by 8pm. Not the quickest time by any means, but I was glad I got to plug a gap in my cycling CV.

I’d learned a lot from the trip. Too much to try to put into words, but I knew I had matured, I’d learned to love England after falling out with it and I was back on track to start working. Although I had started planting seeds for other future trips in my head and had other ideas of what I might like to do when I’m older. I’ve always wanted to do some kind of sailing challenge, not that I knew anything about it.
I learned how to be self-reliant while I was away and that on this trip I was the boss of what I was doing. I never had a day where I had to do something I didn’t want to, or was being told to do something by someone else. In some way that’s one of the biggest things I valued. I thought that if I could keep that up, if I made sure I was in control of the situations I found myself in and if I had the commitment to change something if I didn’t it, then I would always (to some extent) be happy.

Other things the trip taught me was the value and power of friends. There were times when I was low and all I wanted to do was be in a familiar place (ideally a pub) with a good group of friends, dipping into the night in a drunken, chatty splendour. But in all seriousness, I knew that with the right group of friends behind you, you can get through anything. I knew that the friendships I had here, helped me get through the tough scenarios out there, bringing me back to them eventually.
I wanted to do Lands End to John O’Groats next year and having felt like I didn’t see enough of Italy, I promised myself I would go back there for at least four weeks with a bike some time soon.

This whole trip came from taking a risk on a whim, an idea. Something that I wanted to do, but wasn’t sure if I could or not. I left the contract on a good flat and a steady job, to learn more about myself, hopefully finding things that made me happy and content and going towards them and meeting some amazing people in the process and learning about them and their culture.
As I now head towards a professional life that I am both choosing and excited about, all I hope anyone who reads this would take away from it is to trust your instincts and to follow them, no matter where they take you. If we all do this we’ll live lives that are true to ourselves and achieve things we thought we weren’t capable of.

Some stats from the trip.

The overall mileage was 5,000 miles, which crosses over nicely to 8,000km.
To do a round the world trip, requires at least 18,000 miles I think. Maybe that’s the next plan.

The highest peak I got to was the entrance to Andorra, 2408m high.

Countries I visited came to 16, yet I only ever had my passport checked three times.
Here are the countries:
France, Spain, Andorra, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Holland, Belgium and England.
I spent at least one night in every country and about 9 weeks in France (the most time in one place).

I used a Garmin Edge 800. Ortlieb Panniers front and back. A second-hand Claude Butler bike that was put together by my friend Shaun Turnbull.

And thanks to all the people who made the trip possible that way it was.
All the folks that have built the community Warmshowers.org and all the incredible hosts that invited me to stay with them. And the friends I stayed with throughout the trip. Kit, Alain and his family, Rosemary and Bernard, Seb in Tours, Sebastien 2 and his family in Bordeaux, Bill, Nick Burke and Danny in Barcelona, Benoit and his family, Matt Lloyd, Luke Archer and his flatmates, Claudia Klat, Judith and Simon, Lisa Weiss and Raby, Sileno and Rita, Tina and the girls, Kurt, Gabi and Rainer and mum and dad for having the stomach to let me go.
And all my London people. Elaine, Ben Bam, Tom W, Ade, Chris Nieri, Joe Hinder, Jack Maxwell, Gabb, Cliff, Maz, TG and natalie. The list goes on.

Thanks to anyone who’s read anything I’ve written.
Now time for a stiff drink and a slap up meal.
Keep cycling.

Day 155

Thurs 19th Sept.
LONDON. The last day.

I stayed with Mark and Lorna in the morning talking about news, politics, cycling, english-ness and Mark’s cycle to Japan with his eighteen year-old son, who was now at uni in Bristol. We got quite into our discussion and had several cups of tea. People on the trip always assumed that I wanted tea but I didn’t really miss that much. But now I was back I was glad to have it.
I planned at leaving around 10am but when I did it was more like 2pm which was good as the gap to London was about 62miles (90km) and it would be dark by eight. There was no alternative, so I would be getting there tonight, it was just at one time that was the question.

I stopped at a Morrsion’s supermarket in Faversham and relished with delight at all the bizarre things we sell in this country that always seemed so normal. One section of the fridge was devoted to pasties and scotch eggs. Things I had forgotten existed until now. I bought Scotch eggs purely for the novelty and ate half the pack outside the supermarket. I got speaking to a lady outside the supermarket as she noticed the different flags on the back pannier. She spoke to me about her experience of the mountains in Slovenia and how much she loved that part of the world. English people weren’t a close-knit as I remember. She gave me directions on how best to get to London from there which I did my best to honour, but ended up forgetting and taking the GPS.
There was a cycle lane that went all the way to London she knew about but wasn’t sure where it was. She seemed sceptical that I would get there today. I was beginning to grow sceptical too.

Riding on the A roads was as bad as I expected. The were horrible, offered no space for cyclists and the roads were badly maintained as was the pavements. I forgot how much of a dump Britain looked like at times. There was also a musty smell of petrol in a lot of the towns, a layer of grime that settled in to the DNA of the country and everyone seemed to accept. There was a lot of negative things that I was quick to pick up on with coming home, but I still saw how beautiful the countryside was and how lucky we were to live in such a nice place. George Orwell often wrote about the rolling hills of the english countryside, now I realised that this was the identity of England that will be here in years to come, especially in an increasingly digital age.
I went through Gillingham, which despite it’s pretty name didn’t bear many delights and I kept going. I was progressing but not as quickly as I’d hoped. I knew I’d definitely be getting in after dark.
After a few more hours I gave in and took a quick break and ate some of the treats to keep me going. I stopped next to a field with horses and some of them came over to investigate me and the bike, giving the handle bars a good sniff. I wanted to feed them, but only had chocolate, so thought I better not.

With more persistence, then next hill I rolled over, I got a full view of London. The city spread out for miles with a flurry of 21st architecture and skyscrapers in the centre, Canary Wharf just in front. The sun was setting just behind the city in a pinkish orange hue. The view didn’t last for long as I rolled down the hill, but I was glad I got to see the city that’s home to so much and so many from this perspective.
I knew it would take a bit longer to penetrate into towards the centre. I went through the suburbs for another two hours before I started to make an impact. Often I thought I was in areas just outside Walthamstow when really I was still miles out.
At one point I sped up to get through a yellow light and decided to keep the pace up for a sprint, managing to knock it up to a much higher gear and get up to about 35kph on flat, running purely on the excitement of being back, seeing my friends and then my family soon after. I’d never been that quick on flat on the trip and was able to keep it going and overtake a hefty lump of traffic, congealed on the outskirts of the english metropolis.
No I was getting close, I got to a roundabout that went into a tunnel under the Thames that I couldn’t access. Instead I would have to take a ferry across the river for free. I rolled on went to the front and waited for the lengthy procedure for the ferry to take of and coast to the other side of the Thames. It was no dark and the ferry deck was illuminated by bright beneath a big sign that ‘MAYOR OF LONDON’ in a totalitarian manner.
Once I was on the other side, I knew exactly where I was, among east London’s docks. I got into Stratford, then Bow and then north. The longer I was cycling, the closer I was getting to more areas that I cycled around when I lived here. It was like getting a stronger connection with my senses and the areas I knew.
I could barely contain my excitement when rolled past the Big Yellow Storage facility on the edge of Hackney Wick. I was finally at my destination. My chequered flag was the bar I used to work in, up until I left where I had arranged to meet a few close friends, before a bigger come back party that was taking place tomorrow night.
I sped through the industrial, warehouse laden terrain and cut into the car park. I got to the front door of the bar and here it was, the moment that I had fantasized about every time I was climbing up a mountain, or stuck in an ugly spot of weather. Every time I was bored out of my mind from cycling through the same countryside for hours and hours or whenever I felt lonely in the tent. I dreamt about being back here, in part of a community of friends that I love, having drinks, laughing and joking, relaxing after a hard days work. Everything. I’d probably envisioned this moment about forty times and waited months for it.
Elaine was the first to spot me outside. I should’ve given her a hug and have her welcome me back, but I was so overcome with emotion and energy that I shot inside and was greeted by my friend, ex-boss and fellow cyclist Ade and Tom who was one of the founders of the bar.
They both gave me a huge welcome back and supplied me with plenty of beer, not that I needed much anymore. I saw other people I used to work with but a lot of the staff had changed in the five months I was away.
An old friend from a previous job worked there to, another Tom. He gave me a warm welcome and said he’d hold a lock-in for me after hours so we could catch up and get drunk.

It was all finally over and I was home.

Day 154

Tues 17th Sept.
I’m going, going, back, back to Calais, Calais.

The hosts I stayed with had a big dog and two baby girls. I didn’t meet the girls last night as they were in bed, but certainly heard them before meeting them in the morning.
I sat having breakfast with Tom and talking about his cycle experiences with his wife before they had children in Asia. We also talked about the incredible reliability of Schwalbe tyres. I mentioned I hadn’t had any punctures on the one Schwalbes during the trip (only on the replacement) and he said likewise, they maybe had one from months in Asia. The feats of German engineering.
The family left me to go about their day with the cleaner so I had time to pack and prepare my route for Calais. It was straightforward. Down the coast into France and keep going until I’m there. In case I did mess up, I would again be on the GPS maps once in France.

I was a few miles from France at Tom’s house and was there just after 8am. It was remarkable how similar it felt to England rather than France. Obviously the English channel damned any coast it came into contact with.
I’d found out a few days ago that I could’ve actually gone back to England from Dunkirk, which would’ve saved my some cycling and some money. But having come into Calais, it wouldn’t have felt right to go out of Dunkirk when I was so close. Pushing on those extra few miles to go back from Calais would’ve made the full loop and complete the trip in some finite way.
I made one stop in France at a bakery and picked up a pain du chocolat and some pastry named after Africa (or Afrique as it was). I’m not sure what the link was, but is was dense, stodgy and delicious. Sadly back in France bakeries didn’t serve coffee like the did in Germany. The country that has it all.
Back on the bike and I gunned it to Calais not stopping to look at anything, running on pure adrenaline and excitement. The last thing in the world I wanted to do now was be one iota late for this ferry back. I’d get there in good time, make sure I was at the right gate and board the ferry with time to kill.

I had things I wanted to do in France before coming back. There were things and nik naks I thought that would make funny gifts for friends. But as soon as I was in Calais I saw the port and made my way through the maze of roads that got me through border control the third passport check of the trip. I told the guy that checked my passport that his was the first english accent I’d heard in months and that I was relieved to be going back.
I barely had time to say goodbye to France, Europe. And the trip there which had come to an end, signified by my stepping on the ferry. Once I was on board it was a strange feeling. The interior was exactly the same as the ferry I’d got into France and in a way, now I was back in this carbon copy of a ship, it felt like it all hadn’t happened. It had been a flash and now I was sailing towards England. Some cruel glimpse of what I wanted to do and now I was heading home.
The skin on my face was still warm and slightly red from the wind of the coast from cycling that morning. I got a coffee on board and started to think about everything I’d seen and experienced from the last five months. How glad I was that I had the guts to stick it out and not come home early as I thought about doing at times and that I pushed myself to get out to Budapest, seeing more countries and places I never thought I’d see on this trip.
I studied the people on the boat, french, mostly english, german and students all coming to England for a number of different reasons. Visits, coming home, maybe visiting universities or for work. Old people, young, families not talking to each other.

I started thinking about coming back to England. More to be done, although now I was on the ferry, that was the biggest concern over. I knew that cycling in England wasn’t as pleasant nor road users as considerate as they were in Europe. The roads weren’t as spacious and I’d probably have to use a few A roads that were horrible for cycling. I had to get to Cambridge tonight, then I’d be in London tomorrow as planned.
With that We were near the white cliffs and coming into England already. I think the ferry set off about forty minutes ago.
I went out to where the cars were docked when we were allowed and went to the bike and started getting it ready. A Scouser and his mate were on motorbikes. The started talking to me and asked where I’d been, what I’d done and where I was going now. They’d been down to Italy to see a motocross event and now were heading home. Just a long weekend. The wished me luck before getting ushered out to the platform by the guys with authority signalling. They asked me to wait as I was a hazard around all these cars and lorries, and then got me through when they were ready. Just in that snippet of conversation I had with the two motorbiking Scousers, it gave me a huge sense of comfort that I was home and that my fellow countrymen were interested in what I was doing at that the wished me luck.
It may sound benign, but it was exactly the welcome home I needed and inspired to push off down the ramp and get to Cambridge.

Dover’s a strange place. I thought about stopping for the fish ‘n’ chips I didn’t get in Etaples at the start of the trip but didn’t have the time. I stopped in the town centre for one last hit of on the go wi-fi from my best fiend, McDonald’s.
Going through the town centre was incredible. Being surrounded by english speaking people and english accents. For the last five months, I’d always been in a country where I didn’t know the language, I now I was back where everyone sounded like me, it was very strange. It felt like being on an film-set for a Charles Dickens film adaptation. Some kids had cockney accents which added to the novelty and brought me great comfort. It was amazing how I’d left to get a break from England and get hands on experience of other countries and now I was back I got so much comfort from being able to communicate and be understood. It made me think of what it must be like for people migrating and the difficulty in not being able to express yourself in their language for years until you master it, even then it’s rarely the same. You might not pick up the cultural saying and catchphrases that country uses on a day-to-day basis. Especially in England.

Cycling through England was incredible. I saw it with a completely fresh set of eyes. The green countryside, the trees. I had become so swamped by the country when I lived here that I found it hard to see beauty in the everyday. Now I’d been away appreciated all the little things that never noticed normally from being here. I hoped to keep hold of these feelings for as long as possible.
I put Cambridge in the GPS and set sail. On the way I went back through Kit’s hometown. The first person to put me up on the trip. His mum asked for a postcard before I left and although I bought one specifically for her, I never sent. Now I was passing through I thought I’d deliver it, but she wasn’t in. I quickly wrote it out on the back of the bike and delivered it. A later found out that I only missed her by minutes.
It took a bit of a push to get to Cambridge through the english hills, but I got there before dark and went straight to Mark and Lorna’s house last host of the trip.
I couldn’t have wished for better hosts. They were remarkably english and polite and took me in without haste, but apologised as they had booked a meal out with some friends and had to leave soon. Mark showed me where everything was and said to help myself to any food.
They shot out, I made a cup of tea and had a bath as I was instructed to by Lorna, as a luxury to signify the near-end of the trip. I ate dinner, listened to more podcasts for entertainment and had an early night. Tomorrow I would finally be back in London.

Day 153

Tues 17th Sept.
Ghent, Bruges and the north coast.

Now I was really behind. This four-hour knock back meant that I had to do at least 100km a day to make the ferry I’d booked my ticket for, on top of already being behind schedule from the problems in Germany. Thankfully the bike was still running well and I had enough in me for a solid days riding.
I left at the crack of dawn. While I was packing up I saw early commuters in the house on the edge of the park going to work, spotting me by my tent. It always felt like I was a kid playing army men when I was camping, the objective not to be seen by the enemy. To blend in to your surroundings and become wild, like the creatures that inhabit the area. That was always my thoughts after having done this for so long and the thought of being spotted blew everything. No-one every came over and said anything in the few times I had been seen camping, probably to avoid any conflict, the only time I had been rumbled was early on in the french countryside near Nantes by a farmer who let me stay anyway.
As it happens this was the last night I would be camping and an end to playing army or fears of being rumbled again. The end of bad sleep, folding up a wet tent and wrapping it into the back to sit on the back of the bike for hours before I get a chance to air it out and the end of sleeping on a deflated mattress. I had a host on the coast in Belgium for tonight, providing I get there and had a host organised in Cambridge when I got back to England.

I don’t remember anything between the spot where I woke up and Ghent, other than stopping in a bar to have a coffee and a bakery before that to get bread and a pastry. The bar had the same dead atmosphere of the cafe I first came into when I got into Belgium.
I had no expectations of Ghent nor did I have much time there. Although it was a very beautiful city and I would love to spend more time there if I was there again. My plan was to stop briefly and keep cycling. But a briefly became not-so-brief and I soon realised that if I was going to spend anytime in Bruges to look around and get to my hosts for the night on the coast it might be a good idea to get a train to Bruges. I really didn’t want to as I could’ve easily done it two.
I went to a tourist office there to locate the train station and had my first slip off the bike slamming into the ground in about three months. People came quickly to check on me. I was fine, just the pride that was damaged. The train took about 30 minutes and then I was in the mythical city of Bruges.
The weather made a turn for the worse here and while I was cycling around the centre I had another slip. Slam back into the floor. Clearly it wasn’t my day.
The plans to see the city were dwindled by the weather, so I just got some food looked around the centre, bought some tat and planned my escape.

I was still using Google maps, which meant stopping to check them every fifteen minutes or so, taking the iPad out of the front pannier, made more annoying by the rain. I made an error on the road leaving Bruges and managed to correct it before it was too devastating.
Now I was on the right track, it meant nailing the distance between Bruges and the coast as quickly as possible. The next major stop was Ostend which was 18 miles (28km) from Bruges. It was getting late and although I had the advantage of slightly later sunset in Holland and Belgium over Germany, it still wasn’t enough to keep me riding in the daylight.
It was raining too, although it wasn’t heavy it was consistent combined with wind and cold that was a form of misery I could only associate with being near the sea on a gloomy day.

I got to Ostend and it was still light. A good sign. Seeing the see always felt triumphant, like you’ve maxed out the roads due to shear mileage. I took my time by the sea. It was remarkable how english this stretch of coast felt. Cold, miserable and wet. All things I associate with a youth growing up by the sea in Devon.
It was another 18 miles to my where my hosts lived, although I didn’t really know this at the time and though it was too far to go. Darkness came over the landscape and the rain kept coming. I’d lost my back light while I was running around Antwerp (not the only thing I lost there) so I only had the front one. Cycling in the rain at night with one light wasn’t good. I was glad I didn’t get stopped by any police.

The next town was Nieuwpoort. This was good, now I was close. I had to go out of my way here and follow the road around where the sea comes into the town. Then it was just a mile or two from here. I was still going full pelt.
Finally I reached the road I need, having to stop regularly and check it with the glimpses of map I’d saved. My host hadn’t given me a house number, but had just written “It’s the house with the VW transporter van outside”. Great. I went up and down the road at night and found the only VW transporter the was. I knocked on the door and a surprised looking young woman answered. I asked if she was who I was looking for and she said now and got her husband. I showed them the email and explained I’d knocked because of the van and then it clicked. The guy I needed lived a few doors up, sometimes he takes in cycle people. I apologised for disturbing them and thanked them for helping. I was so close to my final night in Europe being over.
I found the house with the VW van parked in the drive. I knocked on the door and got a similar response as I did the other night. “We didn’t think you were coming”. Yeah, yeah I know.

I had become so cold during cycling that my hands, arms and legs had become numb. They took my in, had leftover food and offered a shower. Even after ten minutes in the shower I still hadn’t thawed out properly and thought about what I would be like if I had to camp in this. I know I would’ve got on with it and been okay once I was in the sleeping bag, but I was so grateful to have a bed again. Warmshowers had saved my skin a number of times on this trip.
A few weeks before setting off, I hadn’t heard of Warmshowers and was planning to wing it most of the time with camping and occasionally stay in hostels. Now it was such an important and life-saving element of the trip, I really don’t know how I would’ve done without it, or how different things would’ve been if I hadn’t heard about it. To any aspiring tourers reading, definitely check it out and donate to it if you can. It’s an incredible community.

Day 152

Mon 16th Sept.
A twerp in Antwerp.

I had breakfast with them and left a bit later than planned. Their daughter was studying graphic design at Antwerp which was a few miles west and where I was going next. My aim for the day was to pass through that get down near Ghent by the end of the day. I said my thanks and left.
I got onto the river nearby which I had used to get to the hosts house, which would take me straight into the city, only the headwind on the river was ridiculous. It was difficult to make any progress and demoralising as I was moving so slowly. I kept on and after a few miles the path ahead was closed due to construction. I followed it anyway and when I got to the bridge I could go no further. Another man on a bike came up beside me and seemed guided me off to the alternative path that would rejoin with the river. We didn’t really say anything to each other, but I thanked him when we parted ways. Only then did I realise he had gone out of his way to help me out, as he went back the way we came. People here were too kind. I’m not sure how I would adjust to being back in England.
The path I was now on was a cycle lane surrounded by trees that went through a few quiet towns. The adrenaline I had for nearly completing the trip was building up again allowing me to do abnormally long days just to get a bit closer to home.
I didn’t like the outskirts of Antwerp. It was busy, pushy, full of traffic and lacked any atmosphere. The city centre was much nicer though. When I got there it felt much more like a medium-sized European city.
I looked around a few of the areas before I decided to move on. How little I knew.

On the map the was two roads crossing the river, that I naively assumed were roads, even though there was little to suggest otherwise. I was in the centre of the city and there was a bridge to the north and one to the south, or so I thought. I headed north in search of that bridge. I didn’t find it, but kept going, sure it would turn up. I started to leave the city still with the river to my left and no sign of any bridge. I stopped and got the best view of the river I could, searching for this mystery bridge. Nothing.
Frustrated I had lost time and baffled, I headed south to the other bridge. Same result in a deeper more difficult to navigate part of Antwerp with less views of the river keeping everything hidden. Another hour and a half wasted.
Now I didn’t know what to do. There must be a way across the river. There’s no sign of a ferry that takes people across. I went back to the centre and onto the docks to really study the river with sharp eyes. I asked a stranger how to get to the other side. They said there was a tunnel, but it was for cars. The entrance was about a km north near the petrol station. I found the petrol station and asked there. The lady the sent me on a wild goose chase through the roads with no sign of any opening that connected this side to the other side. I kept asking people on the streets were it was and everyone kept sending me 5 minutes that way, 10 minutes north, just down there and to the left. I found the red light district and went through the main tourist area with shops and restaurants. I was a man at the absolute end of my tether. I had lost precious hours the could jeopardise my arrival time in the UK, which I had no booked my ticket for from Calais, midday on Wednesday.
I spoke to some waiters in the restaurant and laid out the situation and told them what I thought of their city. The waiter said it was in a square nearby, there was an opening and it was the building at the end. You go into a building and take the elevator down, that’s the walkway for people. This had to be it, otherwise I would be stuck here for the night and spend tomorrow trying to complete this benign task.
The man was right, I found the opening and the building I needed was the most unassuming looking construction I could have imagined for the essential purpose it serves. It looked like a Communist building that had been decommissioned in the 70’s and had barely been touched since. Antwerp clearly didn’t receive many tourists that like to cross the river.
The most frustrating thing about this dilemma, was that this was the first part of the city I came into about four hours ago, which now felt like yesterday. I couldn’t believe my misfortune and it made me despise the city all the more. But it was still light and now I knew how to get where I needed to be.
I picked up the only Belgian beer I would drink here from a newsagent and got in the lift, still furious at this stupid city.

Once I was on the other side it felt like I had been let out of prison. I looked around at my new playground and ploughed all my energy into getting as far away from this place as I could. I got about 8km from the demon city into another town when it was getting dark. I looked around the town for a camping spot with intent to leave around 6am the next morning. I found a public park where people were still walking there dogs. It wasn’t ideal, but was the only choice I had. I setup in some trees providing cover from suspicious eyes and drank my beer still cursing the city.

Day 151

Sun 15th Sept.
The end is night.

Despite the perfection of the spot for my purposes I didn’t sleep well getting up in the night to go to the loo. Although it was a beautiful little nook, carved out of nature very conveniently with a tall field at the back and a lake nearby.
The morning sunlight was incredibly bright and strong. Before I’d packed I walked out onto the road to gaze in wonder at is, as it peaked through the trees. Hopefully the weather would stay like this today.
I saw a large group of about twenty cyclists speed past the snippet of view I had of the road. Obviously out early enjoying a Sunday morning cycle. I got out and followed the roads around through the residential areas. It was very green, an idyllic place to live, lots of cycle paths and rivers.
There were cycle lanes that cut through long uninterrupted fields here too. The Dutch being famous for cycling you could begin to see why. I took a bridge across a still beautiful river and into a quite neighbourhood with a beautiful modernist house.
I got to the nearest town and ordered a cappuccino from an ice cream shop. It came with a mini ice cream on the side that cheered me up. I did some research and planned a route into Belgium. Another highlight of this ice cream shop was that I discovered that squirty-cream in Dutch is ‘Slagroom’. I saw it on a board that said ‘Slagroom €0.95’, “That’s cheap for a go in the slagroom” I thought. There was also a shop opposite called ‘Hobo’. Hobos and slagrooms.

I crossed a few more rivers and passed a few more crazy Dutch feats of architecture before I got to Eindhoven. It was quiet, but I’d come to expect that for a Sunday. I looked around and saw very little worth stopping for, but I had to eat. I hoped the kebabs were half as good as the ones in Germany and ordered one from a guy in one of the few shops that was open.
A few miles south and I was in Belgium. Originally I planned to cruise through Belgium, seeing Brussels, Antwerp and Bruges, spending a day or two in each and sampling as much beer as I could manage. But due to leaving Berlin late, I had to blitz through the country with Godspeed.

It was around four o’clock and I saw a little cafe, so I thought I’d stop off for a little pick me up to get me through the next few hours. I also had a host for the night near Antwerp, so that was something to look forward too.
Everyone in the cafe was pretty hostile. I tried order a coffee in french and the man there didn’t want to know, so asked in english and he complied unwillingly. Everyone else in there looked like a zombie. I went to the loo, stole the toilet paper and finished my coffee. I tried paying but the (now) lady on the bar completely ignored me and went about washing glasses and getting men in there more beers. A left a euro on the bar and walked out. I soon discovered that Flemish is not only still used, half the country abides by it, where the other half is French. Every Belgian I met was French and as I understood in Flemish was something of a myth. For the curious minded it’s very similar to Dutch. Maybe the French people are the exciting ones that get out a bit.

I had a few hours left in the day and was confident I would make it to the house of the host in good time. The bike was still running smooth and I had no problems, other than it was starting to get late. I could hold out, as I was near so I kept going. It became dark and now I was sure I was close, still I had no maps and wouldn’t until France.
I got to where I the town where I thought the house was and relaxed. I looked around for some clues on where the street was and compared the plot on the map I had with the bus stop maps, bearing in mind it was dark. I now had a problem. I realised that where they were was about another 18km to the east. It was dark already so camping wasn’t an ideal option and to top it off, it started raining. I got through a town called Geel hoping for some motive or inspiration to spur me through this dark patch towards the end of the trip. The town centre was alive with people out and drinking which was nice, but I still had lots more cycling and navigating to do before I was through.
I attached my lights and crossed a river. It began to sink in that this was one of those rare nightmare moments of the trip. Things were bad, but they couldn’t have been much worse. I took some comfort in that and kept moving. I hated being on the road at night, but I had my lights and had an objective. I pushed on up the river, crossing it again getting into a town called Herentals, where my hosts were.
I was getting cold and the wet was beginning to soak through. Still using a vague plot on Google maps I managed to find their road and their house number.
I knocked on the door. No one responded. I knocked and knocked again, starting to think about knocking on every door asking if they knew the people by the names I had and where they lived. If that didn’t work, I hoped they might see my dilemma and take me in. People would do things like that in Europe, they were nice and laid back.
Finally they answered and apologised for being in another room and not hearing me. They said they thought I wasn’t coming after all, I replied I didn’t either. This was by far the biggest bail-out I’d received so far. They had some vegetable and noodles left over for me, then I had a shower and put all my clothes on radiators to dry.
Once again, I was saved by the skin of my teeth and I was one day closer to being home.

Day 150

Sat 14th Sept.
Hollandaise.

The night before when Rainer (the husband) arrived, he was dressed as a Medieval jester. He entertained us for a while doing dances around the table and reciting german fables. When he calmed down, Gabi told me about his job as a tour guide in the town nearby. The were both around 60 and didn’t look like they needed to work, but he enjoyed it as it gave him something to do.
In the morning a friend of their that lives upstairs came down and joined us for breakfast. It was a big house and they had it designed so the could live there with a friend upstairs in her own part of the house.
They showed me one last thing before I went, which was a log book of all the people they’d hosted since they were on Warmshowers. The book was almost full and was had a big range of people from all-over, doing different sizes of trips. Some were short excursions through Europe and others were round the world trips, or people who had quit their jobs and just gone riding.
I put in my entry and as one last gift from Gabi she gave me a banana box. She said she had to and we’d been talking about them all morning. I couldn’t believe her kindness.

I said thanks and hit the road. The weather was bad but didn’t stop my cycling. Getting to Gabi and Rainer’s had given me the extra miles I needed to give my confidence a boost. Now I knew if I could keep this up I’d be okay.
All the thoughts of excitement for entering a new country had long evaporated as it was now purely about getting from place to place on time. Although I was close to the border for Holland I didn’t get there until after 5pm as I took a wrong route on the GPS. It only occurred to me a few miles into Holland that again, I didn’t have the maps for the country and would have to resort to guessing and ambling through the country with google maps when I had the internet.
As a result I didn’t hit my mark of Eindhoven where another host had offered to put me up. I’d tried to get as many hosts on this leg of the trip, giving me clear targets for the day, meaning I could cycle a bit later into the night and save time with camping.
After arriving in Holland I’d guessed at what would be the best route to take and went for it. A storm had been slowly developing and the winds had picked up with it. I’d noticed it for a while I was getting ready for a messy bit of cycling before camping. Although the winds were high and there were thick black clouds in every direction, the storm didn’t amount to anything and I missed a drenching.

The strange thing about the night was that I was expecting it to start get dark around 7pm, as it did in Germany. I continued riding and I knew it was getting late but it wasn’t getting dark. When I found my spot and stopped, I set up and there was still light in the sky, even though it was near 9pm. How could the light here be so different from Germany a few miles to the east? I’d never experienced light difference like that in two place that are so close to each other.

Day 149

Fri 13th Sept.
A good day to fri hard.

I was adamant to make the in back to London on the day I’d planned to get there. I’d already made plans to meet friends in certain places and I didn’t want to mess that up by being late.
To keep to the plan I had to get past Münster today, tomorrow I’d head into Holland. One night there than three nights crossing Belgium, then England, one night there then London, getting me there on the Thursday. Less than a week now. It was hard to get excited with so much to be done, but the thought of being back in this time was very liberating. I just had to stay positive and keep moving.

I passed a sign for Münster, the city I should have reached yesterday and it was 40km away. Something needed to change. The bike was still sluggish and I knew I was averaging about 60km a day when it needed to be more like 100km. Everyday I didn’t make the distance added more to the days I had left. I was still putting out a maximum effort on the bike and getting nowhere. Also these facts and negativity were building up, so I decided to stop at the next chance and get to the route of the problem.
I examined the bike and gave the chain a full clean again removing a load of black stuff from it for the second time in two days. A build up of grime, dirt and oil.
It took an hour to do the job and when I tested it out in the car park it felt good, although the road could be different. I oiled up all the mechanisms and joints again and got moving.

The bike felt like it was flying now after two slow days. I felt like I could really do the distance I needed and complete the trip in the time planned.
After being on the bike for so many months, I got to know it. It feels like a living thing, responding to your output and interaction. It also tells you when things aren’t right, or an area needs special attention. You can ignore them, but with time it keeps occurring until you give it some time.
When you’re warmed up on the bike, it feels like an extension of your body. Swerving and accelerating can feel like bending your arms or stretching. It’s a strange thing to describe but this was the connection I had with the style framed machine on two wheels after living on the bike for the last few months.
At tines it felt like a marriage between two things. Sometimes you love it and sometimes you hate it. It has its own agenda and behaves in certain ways that aren’t always what you want. But for now, it was cleaned up and behaving well.

I got to Münster in good time now the bike was running well and I was receiving the output of energy I was putting in. I had a message from a host offering to put me up for the night. I hadn’t slept well and with the weather being inconsistent, it seemed like a very good idea. It was 60km away and it got dark around 7:30. Meaning I had about three hours to get there, averaging 20kph with breaks for food and toilet. I was up for the challenge, I dropped them a line and got moving.
20kph with the bags on isn’t amazingly fast, but it’s a quicker then my average pace, so it requires effort and concentration. It was quite exciting to have an aim for the evening, knowing that be rewarded with a bed if I made it. I went full-steam ahead.
Going through towns was annoying as it slowed me down a lot. Something guaranteed to make any cyclist impatient. In one town I hopped up on the curb and sped down a street and past a man leaving a shop, just missing him. He shouted after me in German, I looked back and apologised. I didn’t feel good about it, but on the bright side it seemed like something out of a cartoon, with fancy people dining in a restaurant and a cat and mouse chase whizzing past them, sweeping everything of the table in the after-wind.

More forests on the way made the ride pleasant and as always, there were cycle lanes. I would miss cycling in Germany. It was by far the most pleasant country for cycling in terms of the facilities provided and roads.
I’d made one stop for food and another stop for photos. I received a text from my host Gabi saying that an original German style potato soup was waiting for me. The second food text I’d had on the trip. I replied that this was the best news I’d had in days.
She delivered as promised when I arrived, with a bratwurst in the middle and mustard on the side. To top that off, the best melon ice cream I’d ever tasted was for dessert. It was a delicious feast and was much more than I had expected, setting me up for another long day. It still blows my mind that people can be so generous to strangers. The cycling community.
While I had a shower I found another tick on my arm. Now I had ample knowledge on removing these tiny beasts and had picked up some tweezers for the job. The idea is to dig deep and get hold of its head. Then slowly pull it out without twisting. It was incredible how firmly it burrowed into my arm and how much it clung to the skin. I was still on the antibiotics from the doctor for the last tick bite so didn’t have to worry about that.

Day 148

Thurs 12th Sept.
Problems.

I had a late start, but was back on the road as soon as I could. I made sure I had a good meal the previous night, to give me plenty in the engine for today as I had struggled yesterday.
Back on the track and things felt okay. My aim for the day was to get to the city of Münster. I didn’t really know where I was, but I knew I wasn’t as far from Hannover as I wanted to be.

A few hours in and things still weren’t right. I suspected it was the valve on the front inner tube going down, but after stopping several times to inspect it and it being fine, I wasn’t sure what was making the bike feel so sluggish.
I stopped at a McDonald’s again and took a few coffee stirrers and napkins and decided to give the chain and all the gear cogs a really clean. I spent about an hour hunched awkwardly around the bike, cleaning and getting dirty in the process. Part of me felt bad about abusing McDonald’s so repeatedly. I stayed used their internet, toilets, stole loo roll when I needed it and now this. Then again the other part of me was glad to get one up on this faceless, corporate behemoth.
I got back on and kept riding, the bike didn’t feel much better and I was worried about what I could do. It was fine before Berlin and now this? I kept on as best as I could but rate I was going at was barely above 16kph and I kept stopping.
I still had cycle lanes to follow and this part of Germany looked like any other, so I wasn’t getting any inspiration from the surroundings. The weather was grey and miserable and further into the day it started to rain. I started listening to the audiobook I had of Andrea Agassi’s biography. I’d heard it before, but hearing its American narrator dramatise Agassi’s life gave me a story to think about other than my own. At one point the rain got heavier and I ducked out under a bus shelter and waited for the worst to pass. I really didn’t want to be out here doing this, but saying that , I knew I’d miss it when it was gone, so I tried to make the most out of it.

I was going through another forest. If I was dropped here and told I was in Germany I would’ve thought it was the Black Forest for sure. It was more forest-like then anything I’d ever seen in England, tall trees going on for miles around into the wilderness. Still with Agassi’s life going on in one ear I descended into the forest, not too far from the road and settled for the night. The ground was marshy and it was difficult getting the bike in, which is why I didn’t stray too far from the road.
It was a beautiful place to spend the night and although I didn’t want to be on this trip anymore, I knew moments like camping in a place like this with no-one else around were rare.

Day 147

Wed 11th Sept.
Actually leaving Berlin and Hannover.

In the morning I felt pretty bad but good enough to function. While packing up a few dog walkers were out first thing and a saw a red squirrel in the woods. The first I’d ever seen in the wild. I danced around the trees than met another one and they ran off together. I took it as a small present for having a bad night.
Then I got my second small present. An old man in slippers with nothing but a towel wrapped around his waist appeared and looked towards part of the lake, I assumed for his dog, he disappeared shortly after.
I left the woods at 8 and raced back into the city. Now Berlin was loosing some of its charm. At the station I had the usual at a McDonald’s and check the internet before getting to Hannover and going back into the countryside. My train was at 10 and there was no way I was going to risk missing this one, so I made sure I was on the platform at 9:40.
I had to make one change on the train which wasn’t easy. By the time I’d changed platforms and done the legwork, I only just caught the train. My luck with transport had been abysmal, but I always seemed to scrape through. This is something I was set on changing in my habits when I got back.
The second train went through to Köln, which sounded further across the country then Hannover. I only found out recently that it was German for Cologne and taking the train through to there would made things much easier, but I decided to stick to the place I’d paid for. The ticket was already €60 and if I got footed with the bill to Cologne I might have fainted.

Hannover was a nice enough place, but was nothing spectacular. I did have much to do but go west. Now that I was in a country where I had maps the GPS was back on track and I used it to get out of the city smoothly.
I had run out of chamois cream which I used to create less friction between my bum and the saddle, reducing sores, which I knew I would get with the next few long days riding. I went into a few shops on the way out, bike shops and pharmacies, but no-one seemed to understand what I meant, it being a french word and me being english. Perhaps there was a german word for it that I never discovered, but I didn’t get any chamois cream and used the remaining E45 I had instead.

Getting back on the bike after twelve days off was tough. My body wasn’t used to the extra baggage on the bike and the strange movement it creates. I’d got used to riding the bike without bags in Berlin, which feels like riding a different bike entirely. When you chop and change the between the two it’s very confusing for your body. A bike with no bags feels like you’re riding a stick and floating along the ground. Yet with the bags fresh on, it feels like your having to move some gargantuan machine, that moves in lazy ways and has a life of its own.
I left Hannover around 2 and struggled with the bike, but I was ready to finish the trip and get home. Back on the roads there was the infamous German cycle lanes that I’d come to know and love.
I was working hard and putting out a lot of energy but not getting far. It was demoralising as I knew at this rate I wouldn’t make the times I had planned. There wasn’t a headwind and although I’d had a break my body was used to this routine so I should’ve been fine. I didn’t push it too hard, but I kept pushing and trying to gain territory.
The sun had changed its patterns now that we were in September and was going down a little early changing the riding day. Now it was on the horizon at 7pm and gone by 8pm. The time had come and I found a nice, but damp woods to spend the night in a few km off the road.