Twenty Days in June


“Darling, do you trust me?” That said to a wife who was close to six months pregnant. “Why, what have you done?” was her slightly nervous response. Not what I had done but what I was planning to do. The idea had formed more than two years previously, had even come to the boil a couple of times but had cooled due to a lack of resources or lack of time. Now here it was again, bubbling fiercely. I knew it wouldn’t be stilled even if I had wanted to. My mind had spun the necessary timings and calculations. It had to be done before my wife was too gravidly incapable. I had considered after the birth but had rejected this as being a touch inconsiderate. No, it was now or never…

“You want to cycle from Land’s End to John O’Groats when I’m seven months pregnant?” she sighed with relief. “Why of course, my darling!” The ingenuous gambit of “Do you trust me?” had actually turned perfectly. She was so relieved that I hadn’t mortgaged the house or had an affair that she gave her blessing instantly.

So began the scramble to buy supplies, organise tickets and otherwise get my affairs in order. The most important thing though, was the bike. My ‘good’ mount had been stolen from outside a restaurant in Southwark the year before so up had come my second-hand Dawes mountain bike from my parents’ home in Sussex. It was at least fifteen years old but was neither old nor arresting enough to be described as ‘vintage’. It was heavy and unwieldy. There was rust in the sprockets. The gears slipped from time to time. It didn’t even have mudguards. It was no oil painting. It was alright for bombing about London and in fact its age and unsightliness were an advantage in that it was unlikely to attract the attention of thieves. But was it up to the thousand mile marathon, the mountainous rises, sharp descents and switchbacks, the rain and hail and wind of Britain’s rugged terrain? For that matter, was I?

The doctor’s assessment was not favourable. He solemnly confirmed that both front and rear gear cassettes needed changing, and along with a new puncture-proof tyre, gear cables and other bits of work, the cost would come to nearly two hundred pounds – almost three times what I paid for it in the first place. I didn’t have the funds for a new bike, which was in reality what was needed – a sturdy steel-framed tourer, a swift road bike, or even a simple hybrid. What fool would consider riding one thousand miles of road on a mountain bike? Eventually a compromise was reached – a hundred pounds to make the vehicle road-worthy. As long as it got me there I would accept the discomfort and the slow indignity of its tractor-tyred trudge.

But what hare-brained scheme is complete without some alignment to the common good? As a film maker I had been working for some months previously with an organisation called Open Cinema who used film as a means of reaching and engaging with the homeless. As a small but expanding outfit that I had personal involvement with, it seemed a perfect cause for which to fly the banner. Christoph, the CEO, was readily enthused and soon we were setting up a fundraising page and firing off emails to the great and the good, and the just plain known to us. Open Cinema would act as a home hub, a sort of GCHQ; I would send back regular texts which would go up as a rudimentary travel blog, as well as photos when I was able, so well wishers could chart my progress if they cared to. Christoph was aware of the urgency of things owing to the imminence of my wife’s due time. A date was set. There really was no going back…

Having a charity behind me raised the stakes and added responsibility, but also offered a degree of solidity and security. Christoph, who appeared endlessly well-connected, agreed to track me a bed where possible, and he was good to his word. For the remainder I had my old bivvy and bed roll and an army basha to sling overhead to keep off the rain (no tent). One thing I was set upon (and I made a pledge to myself on the outset of the trip) – I would not pay for a bed at any time during the journey. On this point I was determined.

The other thing I was set on was keeping a daily travel journal. For this I was armed, as usual, with my fountain pen and trusty Moleskine. My usual habit is to write early, on first waking and, I made no concessions for being on the road. In fact following habit was easy and the fact that I would be settled in a place, refreshed (or relatively so) and had the day spread before me rather than behind, made complete sense.

So every morning I would write for half an hour or forty minutes. If I had the luxury of a bed then I would write in bed. If I was camping I would light my stove first and slouch somewhere to write while my billy came to the boil. It made mornings a protracted business. I had to factor in an extra half an hour or more which of course meant deducting this from my sleep. Sometimes it was frustrating not to just be able to get up and go. But generally this slow unfolding set me up for the day.

The following pages then were all written in situ, wherever I happened to have found myself. Apart from a few tweaks here and there they remain in their raw state, unpolished. Writing in the morning meant that I was always writing about the events of the day before and those filtered through the gauze of sleep. I would simply grab what surfaced and go with it. As a result there are some inconsistencies and gaps in narrative. Inevitably, it is not the whole story…

Sunday June 5th, 2011
Off finally, but an inauspicious start. I was cycling cheerily along the canal from home to Paddington when I discovered that the last gate before Regent’s Park was locked. I backtracked, found a slip path but found the gate there locked too. A brief moment of panic – the ample time I had given myself for the train began contracting, vanishing. I found some steps nearby but rather than dismantle my collection of bags on my pannier, I heaved the whole thing up, twisting my torso in the process. My mind has now concentrated on the pain that has sprung up, imagining strained muscles, slipped discs, disablement, a trip off the rails from the beginning, abject failure and a premature return.

Then at the station, the train was late getting ready, there was a struggle to find the right carriage for the bikes and suddenly I had a clench-buttocked guard leaning over me.
“You have to leave and find your seat now Sir!”
“Don’t raise your voice at me Sir!” I retorted suddenly and oddly. It was like a slightly ludicrous scene out of a 1940s melodrama.

There were tears at home. It was only last night that I realised the enormity of leaving a seven months pregnant wife on what is essentially a jaunt (charity raising aside). She worked tirelessly as ground support all of yesterday handling all the technical details I find so tedious – fixing the map support to my handlebars, adjusting the fittings on my new panniers. Hopeless really that I have little interest in bikes other than their aesthetic value and a nod to comfort given that I’ll be sitting on one for the next thousand miles. I suppose that’s ample time to learn, unless of course, the back gives out…

Monday June 6th, 2011
This is good. It’s coming up to eight in the morning. The other cyclists who bunked down at the campsite have been gone two hours or more. But I have a Cornish wall of granite at my back, hung with the purple heads of snap dragons, keeping off the insistent sea wind, the sun on my face, a billy coming to the boil at my feet, and my Moleskine and fountain pen in hand. Everyone is different and does it differently I suppose, but I live for these moments of peace and repose on the trail. The Polish chap I befriended last night on the way to the campsite, as thin as a whippet, with the short beard and wavering gaze of a Dostoyevskian ascetic, was up and packed by six. I felt guilty crawling out of my nest at the same time. He is doing the same journey as me, solo, also for a charity, and likewise on back roads. He’s got the two hour head-start but he’s missing out on this, and the swim –

I wandered down the steep boulder strewn track to the beach at Whitesand Bay about an hour ago. The sea was that deep turquoise you get in the West Country, not the bath brown I’m used to on the South coast. The waves were breaking in regular rows. There was no one about apart from the gulls and some cottages which gazed down primly from the cliffs. I had had the thought of baptising the journey by a dip at Land’s End, but the cliffs there were steep and impassable. I was relieved in a away. By the time I got there last night the sky was grey and the wind was blasting in from the Atlantic. But the morning conditions, apart from being cold, were perfect. I stripped off and charged yelling into the surf. It was icy– about thirteen or fourteen degrees I guessed – but looked so beautiful that the pain didn’t strike you for a few moments and even then it did so reluctantly, so magnificent was the setting. I lasted only a few minutes but when I came out I immediately looked back wistfully. That wasn’t a swim. But then this wasn’t a holiday. Was it? Always that sense of loss in life. Pleasure ending as it’s being experienced. The day ending. The season passing. But here I am and I had my moment. And now I’m following on the tail of the Polish monk.

Tuesday June 7th, 2011
I’m sitting under a wooden gazebo next to a swimming pool which sounds glamorous except it’s in a caravan park near the confluence of the A39 and the A3059. I can hear the not too distant roar of traffic. It rained last night and judging by the sky it could go either way (which is as about an accurate enough prediction one can make in this country). Yesterday, however, was pretty flawless from about eleven when the wind dropped. I took the coast road via St Just to St Ives – the winding, rolling coast road which would dip and climb over the gorse-covered granite hills. I had been warned about the Cornish and Devon hills and I had heard said that this was the toughest bit of the journey. Actually, I’ve never had a problem with hills, either as cyclist or walker, not out of any masochistic tendencies, but because they’re moments when the whole thing contracts into little bite-sized challenges – the whole made digestible by being broken down. But who could complain anyway when the hills were so beautiful? The sea, a majestic, wrinkled azure, was never more than a very long stone’s throw from my left. The turf-covered Cornish stone walls, slowly, year-by-year, being reclaimed by nature, were flushed with red valerian and behind, fist-fulls of white elderflower hung on just about the only species of tree I saw in this area. This was a remote, wild corner of Britain – for the last seven or eight miles before St Ives there was barely any human habitation, and what houses I saw crouched submissively in the folds of the earth, hewn from the same substance as the hillside. Looking on the map there are numerous “quoits” and standing stones, evidence of the same peoples who perhaps erected Stone Henge and who retreated to the wilder reaches of Britain after each successive invasion of Celt, Roman and Saxon.

Wednesday June 8th, 2011
I’m suffering now. My legs are painful of course but I’m slightly wired on exhaustion. I feel like I’ve been on a bender for three days. It’s a new chapter of tiredness for me and I’m only at the very beginning of the journey…

The bulk of yesterday seems to have bled from my mind, leaving the time from six pm in stark isolation. This is when I flew down the valley into stone-built Tavistock. No time to look about me or to discover whose statue it was (an Elizabethan gentleman if I’m not mistaken) towering at a cross-roads. I had texted Christoph at lunchtime with the plea,“Will be in Dartmoor end of day. Know of anyone in the vicinity who might host a weary traveller?”

Actually less a plea than a buoyant request. I was happy-ish to camp but a bed would have been heaven. On breaking for a snack a couple of hours later I discovered this response: “Flora and Henry Brudenell-Bruce would love to have you stay – they’re up on the tors on Dartmoor.”

I had no idea, and still don’t, what a tor is (I suspect some kind of precipitous fell) but I was thrilled at the invitation. Brudenell-Bruce. I knew that name. Henry and Flora. They rang bells too. Yes, that’s right – Brudenell-Bruce was the name of the girlfriend of one of my brother’s friends. Daughter of some dissolute lord I was told. It was an unusual name, as these old aristocratic ones often are – were these two related? Siblings? Their first names stuck in my mind too. Henry and Flora. Dartmoor. I was pretty certain I had read an article about this couple with their four kids who had built their own marvellously idiosyncratic dwelling in a remote Devon valley. I was intrigued and made up my mind to find them.

At six I heard my phone go in the bowels of my dry sack. It was Flora who in her message directed me to call her husband at home. I was hoping they were in western Dartmoor but as luck would have it they were buried somewhere in the east, down a narrow twisting lane above Widecomb-on-the-Moor. I didn’t think too much about the stretch of map I had to cover. I had fixed it as my destination and that was that. But everything on the map looked flat; there were no contour lines which was probably as well. Nothing in my journey – even though it had been rigorously hilly, had prepared me for the ascents on Dartmoor. This was proper wilderness and I was later told that it lay twelve to fourteen hundred feet above sea level. When I reached the house – which indeed was the one I had imagined – it was nine thirty at night. I had crossed almost the entire breadth of Dartmoor in three and a half hours, lugging thirty kilos of extra weight. My mind was racing, falling away from itself. Long ago I had hit the wall.

I wandered about, looking for a way in. A slim figure in dirty cords appeared. He had long blonde hair fanned out in a pony tail and a tail-like hippy beard. He had intelligent blue eyes and gave off a pleasant aura. This was Henry.
“Dinner or bath?”
“Both please, in that order.”

Thursday June 9th, 2011
The road is like life in miniature, but stretched, extreme at both ends, much more so when one is flying solo. One moment you’re laughingly ecstatic (over something as seemingly small as the six foot bath I climbed into the night before last), the next you’re so terribly low that it’s blackness all around, without end. That summed up conditions last night when I found myself cooking instant noodles in the dark, over my camp stove in a port-a-loo stinking of dried urine and disinfectant. The fiasco started at eight, when, following my nose to a nature reserve reservoir to camp, I allowed myself to be distracted by a brown campsite sign coupled, oddly, with an animal sanctuary. I thought this rather nice in a way. Three miles or so of pedalling and a pause for directions found me in a notch in the valley filled with caged dogs, tortoises, goats etc. Not a tent or soul in sight. My increasingly desperate halloos started first the Boxer, then the Alsatian and finally, the whole gathering of goats until the din became unbearable. Eventually a woman stuck her head out of the upstairs window of a building and told me that the sign was deceptive – the campsite was in fact two miles back from the direction I had just come. Back-tracking, I arrived at the campsite to be told by another woman that they only catered for caravans and motor homes.

“But the sign on the road had a tent on it!” I piped plaintively.
“Mistake of the council,” she chimed.

The charity ride gambit didn’t work but she did soften enough to tell me about another campsite at a farm, once more, a couple of miles down the road I had already come.

“No showers?” I whispered.
The farmer shook his head slowly.
“But toilets?”
A nod.
“Could I ask you a very big favour?”
I gathered the shreds of dignity round me. I tried to look noble and humble at the same time, like a Don Quixote on a two-wheeled mount.
“I’m cycling from Land’s End to John O’Groats. For charity. The thing I really need is… er…could I possibly use your shower?”
His wife had appeared, hovering in the doorway. Would she intervene on my behalf?
The farmer half turned his head in the direction of his spouse. I smiled, faintly, weakly.
“No. I don’t think so.”
Which is how I found myself, half an hour later, crouched over a guttering flame in a stinking lavatory in a field, stinking myself, rocked to and fro by a westerly wind.

Now, however, I have just finished a full English breakfast – and a very fine one – in the same farmer’s farm shop restaurant. Suffering has its rewards.

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