Twenty Days in June


Friday June 10th, 2011
I woke in a bed once again, this one kindly offered up by one Adam Laity, a contact of Christoph’s. He is an upstanding fellow and I warmed to him immediately. Christoph suggested we could ‘compare beard notes’ and indeed he has a fine growth in the Russian nineteenth century Orthodox manner. He lives in Bristol and it was a jolt to the system entering a city proper after so many days in the countryside. Fortunately I was directed onto a bike path running along an old disused railway line which ran nine miles from the outskirts into the city centre. I found him in a grand converted church which now operates as a circus school complete with internal rig, hanging ropes and so on. We stayed up until well past twelve, sucking on beers and swapping yarns.

Even though I persist in doing it in the naïve hope that things might change, asking people directions is a singularly pointless exercise. I am continually astounded at how bad people’s local knowledge is. The worst, with utter conviction, misinform you, but most, in an attempt to be helpful, steal minutes of precious time by staring into the middle distance in the vain hope that something will come to them. Showing them a map is usually a mistake. They tend to take it fearfully and eye it blankly, as though gazing upon the Dead Sea Scrolls. Several rotations later they jam a finger at the point you’re not at and trace a route which is clearly preposterous. But I play my own hopeless role in the charade. Several moments after someone has given me considered and lengthy instructions, I have all but forgotten the first line.

I had a particularly notable encounter with a ‘direction person’ yesterday. I was cruising down a hill in the sunny afternoon in a rollingly beautiful patch of countryside south east of Wells. I tend to choose my victims at random and this probably is half the problem. This one was no exception. He was an oldish man of advanced middle age, prominent nose like a tomahawk, beetling eyebrows. He was out for a run but it was like no style I had ever seen before – half trot, half stagger. I’m sure he would have gone over with a gentle push. What was most striking though was his get-up – trainers, long shorts and tee-shirt, all as convention dictates, but topping it all was a voluminous tartan tam o’shanter with a wobbling pom pom.

“Excuse me, you couldn’t tell me the way to Dulcote could you?”
He held up an arm to indicate that he would converse whilst running. I slid in beside him.
“Yes, down the hill, left before the main road… Oh bugger!”
Something flew from his mouth and hit the tarmac. Something large. A set of false teeth.

I felt responsible for this mishap but there was very little I could do. I kept pace with him in silence as he chased the rolling dentures down the hill. Finally he scooped them up and inserted them back into home.
“Left, I mean right before the main road,” he continued without pause,” then under the bridge-“
A car was drawing up slowly behind.
“Oh really!” he wheezed sibilantly as once more his teeth clattered to the ground. The car nudged past. He slipped them back into place.
“Right then left down the hill.”
“Thanks so much!” I shouted as I cycled away.

Five minutes later I was asking the same question of a tractor driver.

Saturday June 11th, 2011
I’m sitting in the shadow of the Malvern Hills just south of Worcester, the adolescent River Severn to the east. I saw it first coming down off the high hills south of Gloucester, an estuary then bisecting the flood plains, glistening and brown like a giant torpid anaconda.

I succumbed to the charmless allure of a campsite again. It was the thought of a hot shower which turned me. It started raining about seven last night and I didn’t quite have the heart to wild camp by the river as planned. Anyway, I hope it’s just a temporary aberration – the thought of becoming a campsite devotee with its attendant joys of living cheek-by-jowl with neighbours you’d normally cross the street to avoid, the communal latrines, the forced bonhomie, the comfortable shoes, makes my heart slowly sink. Actually I exaggerate because all those things – bar the latrines and the comfortable shoes – I’ve actually quite enjoyed here. I like the fact of mixing with people I ordinarily wouldn’t. I feel myself opening up like the slow prisings of a tin opener on a tightly sealed can. Perhaps everyone needs to do a few things they wouldn’t ordinarily. It helps open you up, shakes you out. In some ways that’s what this journey is about, as well, by contrast, in being self-reliant and self-sufficient. A curious mixture – control, and a giving up of. It’s why I travel in the way I do – basic maps rather than GPS navigation. I don’t want to know the contours of a place, to have too much information. Just throw it at me, flat or hilly, and I’ll see what I can do.

It’s going to be a hot one today. It’s not even nine and I can feel the strength of the sun burning holes through my clothes. That much is good. I am being smiled on today.

Sunday June 12th, 2011
I barely slept a wink last night. I was in open country down on a vineyard (I had no idea they had them as far north as this), near a village called Wroxeter, a few miles south east of Shrewsbury. The tag on my sleeping bag announces that it can withstand temperatures as low as two degrees centigrade. It probably wasn’t as low as this last night but I was freezing. I was already dressed but had to put on an extra pair of tracksuit trousers in the middle of the night and, a very last resort – socks – which I somehow consider beyond the pale. Still, I had no comfort. I would shift every few minutes in the vain hope that the new position would offer sudden satisfaction. And of course being awake or semi-awake means that you’re aware of the tightening of your bladder. It’s impossible to ignore which means you have to wriggle out of your sleeping bag like a maggot from its casing and face the slap of the night’s air.

It’s just started to rain. I was told it would by numerous parties, including my parents, but somehow I’d hoped they would be wrong, as the forecasters usually are. What I’ve noticed about cycling a big distance like this is that weather can be absurdly local. Leaving Bristol the other day, I had fine weather, verging on hot. Then at about six pm I entered countryside that had obviously just had a deluge – trees and vegetation were ringing wet, water had pooled in the potholes and coursed down the hills. Curiously I had the same sensation as entering a house or room after a party, seeing the spoils of celebration and wondering what went on.

A postscript to yesterday which chastens my churlishness about campsites and its denizens. Apparently word got out that I was cycling from Land’s End to John O’Groats and caused a stir amongst the (mainly) retired community. People began approaching me to ask about my trip. One chap, who jocularly asked me what was for breakfast on seeing me with my little camp stove, later invited me to eat with him and his wife in their caravan. Another, who lived near John O’Groats, offered his garden for me to camp in. I was overwhelmed really, and with the sun riding high, I cycled off with a cheerful sense of humanity and my place in it.

Monday June 13th, 2011
Yesterday was a test. More so probably than the Dartmoor day where I strained my right arm on the climbs. The rain came, as I feared it would. It arrived about eight as I was finishing breakfast. Slanting and committed rain, it quickly gathered pace until it was falling solidly, without pause. It was the type of rain that you instinctively knew would fall all day. It was cold too and there was a whirling wind that seemed to buffet you from every direction. My body was already delicate from the lack of sleep. As soon as I stepped out encased in my cycle wear, it seemed to shrink away. Going out seemed to go against all natural inclinations. There were different stages after that, after breaking the initial boundary. The first was quite invigorating,

“I did it! I’m doing it!” A little voice seems to say, and there is a satisfaction in being out when everyone else is in. You hunker down and adjust to the notion of getting deliberately wet. It’s not so bad, satisfyingly bracing even.

So that’s the first phase. The second is transitional and by and large you are unaware of its passing. It is your body slowly tiring, losing heat. Like an old house, the water finds its way into the cracks of your system, working silently and profanely. This is the time you think you’re okay, that you think you’re defeating it. But you’re not. And anyway, what choice do you have? Stop for the day? Impossible. The show must go on.

The third phase you most certainly do feel. The water and cold are in now, coursing through the render, swelling the plaster. That old hunkering down feeling intensifies until it’s just you. No one else counts. Not friends, family, wife. The world contracts to the little sharp feelings in the bubble of yourself. Thinking of loved ones is unhelpful so you simply don’t do it. The only person you can look to is yourself. I was thinking about this state later and concluded that it is the very primitive survival mechanism that we don’t usually see in Western twenty first century living, but that is built-in, a pulsing reality.

When I got to my destination (a campsite in a forest) at an early quarter past five, my hands were frozen into claws. I couldn’t feel the left one and for the last several miles of the journey I was changing gears on that side with my right hand. When I got off the bike my body went stiff, shoulders hunched. I walked like a zombie, all joints seized. The manager and his wife kindly lent me a tent and put it up for me while I went and stood under a hot shower for forty minutes.

Tuesday June 14th, 2011
A different day, in fact, almost two days have gone past. I have been keeping an eye on my break pads and today discovered they were shot through. Incredible that they were worn almost to metal in just over a week. There must have been immense strain on them going down hill with all the extra weight, and I broke on every hill for fear of losing control. Anyway, I was directed to a local bike hire and repair shop in the forest that catered mainly for holiday makers. The chap there was prematurely grey with a florid complexion and crooked teeth. He seemed to turn his back on me as soon as I arrived and I immediately bridled. But I was mistaken; he actually turned out to be one of the most obliging and generous hearted people on the trip so far. We chatted with ease. It is a feature of the journey that almost everyone I have encountered I have done so on the level, as an absolute equal, without side. I suppose I have nothing to fall back on and I need the help of strangers. It forces one to be as open as one can be, or rather, it seems to flow naturally. It’s a pleasant and liberating state, and what’s more, it works in an ingenuous, non-contrived sort of way.

So we chatted – this chap and me – in a forest in Cheshire. He replaced all four of my break pads, made some adjustments on gears, gave me a packet of flapjacks when I inquired about energy bars, even threw in a rain poncho for good measure.

“So how much do I owe you?” I asked, mentally calculating a good chunk.
“Oh don’t worry about it.”
“Don’t worry about it?!”
“No, really. Don’t worry about it.”
I was genuinely overwhelmed. Maybe it was a relatively smell gesture, but do people really do things for nothing in this country? And it got me thinking – what was the exchange? I had been charming, friendly I suppose, but perhaps there was a clue in his final words.

“I’ve been thinking and talking about doing something like you’re doing for ages, but you’ve made up my mind – I’m going to do it!”

I suppose one never knows, for good or bad, what one’s influence can be on people.

Whilst the weather was the threat on Sunday though, now it’s my own body. Everything was going swimmingly after leaving the campsite. And then in the afternoon the pain erupted in my knee.

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