It’s been a week of sad goodbye’s, hello again’s and final fairwell’s.
After eighteen months of planning, preparing, holding on and waiting, the day arrived and I still didn’t feel fully prepared. Being under prepared and ready to go will always throw up a few interesting situations.
Saturday started with a hearty Baillie breakfast at Mum and Dad’s and after a few emotional goodbye’s, Jimmy, Jono, Fat Dan, Milky, Lee, Moonie and I set off toward Bedford.
We made good progress although Fat Dan couldn’t speak much after about 10 miles and Milky seemed determined to lay down whilst still attached to his bike whenever we stopped. It was like watching a cycling silverback in lycra, perform an impression of Delboy falling through the bar, classic.
It wouldn’t have been a proper bike ride if Jimmy hadn’t had at least one puncture, so between arriving in Bedford but before we had reached the B&B, Jimmy managed to puncture both front and rear tyres once. Nevertheless we spent a pretty respectable 3 hours 48 minutes actually cycling to complete the 53 mile ride.
It was a lovely gesture of the lads to join me for the first day and Leaving Bedford the next morning was tough. As I cycled off I suddenly felt very sad to be saying goodbye to such a great group of friends and for the first time this week I asked myself, ‘What was I thinking?’
I cycled the first 30 miles to Cambridge in just under two hours, stopped to refuel, then on through Newmarket to the ‘Big Wood’ at West Harling, where I set up my tent for the first night camping in the wild. Unfortunately I was not alone in the wood, it was home to a relentless army of mosquitos and other varieties of biting insects. My plans to cook a nice pot of quinoa and mackrel fillets in tomato sauce for dinner, followed by a solar shower and ten hours of dreamless sleep, were well and truly dashed. Unable to endure being eaten alive, I dived into the tent; sweatie, hungry and needing the toilet, for the second time I asked myself, ‘What was I thinking?’
I tried to sleep in my cycling gear in just a silk sleeping bag liner to avoid getting everything else dirty on the first night, to no avail. The high pitched buzz of flying invaders trying to force themselves through the mesh of the inner tent, the screech of a bird that literally sounded like it was murdering someone and the occasional heavy breathing just inches from my head, joined together with uncomfortably cold and a bulging bladder to make, sleeplessness.
Thankfully I only had to cycle twenty miles the next morning to visit my sister Jane, brother in law Mike and nephews Ewan and Finlay for another couple of days being well and truly looked after. It’s the longest I’ve spent with them since their return from a year living in Canada and it was great to reconnect and catch up.
Before leaving, Jane expertly shaved my head and as I was preparing the bike Finlay asked Mum, who was stood next to me at the time, ‘Where’s Uncle Fraser?’ Then for another sad goodbye and a long day riding 84 miles to just south of Maldon, for my second night in the wild.
Following some great advice I received on Facebook, in response to my desperate start camping, I made sure I was properly prepared this time and had an excellent night, sleeping next to a horses paddock. It was probably more luck than judgement, as it was pitch black when I arrived, I put the outer skin on the tent the wrong way round once and could have easily woken up in someones back garden.
Thursday morning was spent cycling almost 50 miles to Gillingham to meet Mum and Dad. Dad would cycle the 25 miles to Canterbury for an overnight stay in a B&B and then on to Dover on Friday morning for the final fairwell of the week. And what a good job he did too, he’s no spring chicken, but for what he lacks in youth he makes up for with enthusiasm and the shear will to give it a go. Another lovely couple of days and a very sad fairwell, we arrived just before my check in time and I think the rushed departure probably did us all a favour.
It’s difficult to describe how it felt to cycle on alone, all week there have been occasions to say ‘hello again’ to familiar faces and now only unfamiliar places, people and cultures await.
For the last time I asked myself, ‘What was I thinking?’
I arrived into Calais, departed the ferry with the lorries and cars and cycled with them, straight onto the motorway. Not a great start but at least it focused the mind on the task in hand. I eventually found my way to the tourist information centre to be told that ‘You can not cycle to Dunkirk’ then followed a rant about French politics and ‘Welcome to France!’ Needless to say, I did cycle to Dunkirk and the roads were fantastic, the sun was shining and I thought to myself, France is going to be good to me.
I reached Dunkirk early evening not to sure what to do next, I didn’t get round to planing a route to the war memorial, or even looking it up for that matter. So I did, what has already become the solution to every problem, I kept cycling.
As I waited for the cover of darkness to illuminate the dark recesses suitable for a stealthy camper to make home for the night, I crossed the border into Belgium. Even in the dark I noticed the subtle differences from architecture and road layout to the less subtle change of language on the road signs and quickly realised I didn’t have any reference to call upon to make sense of what they said. I carried on cycling toward Veurne soaking up the pleasant evening, weighing up the dark spaces, until I reached Veurne. As I resigned myself to cycle on toward Ieper, where I intended to visit the next day, a car pulled up next to me and the Driver asked me if I was alright. It was around 11:00pm, aware of my circumstances, I cautiously asserted all was well, trying to look like I always cycled fully loaded late at night.
No previous experience to date offered any insight into what happened next, it might have been my shiny white legs, or underlying doubt in my voice that caused the driver to stop and get out of the car. Or perhaps I sensed he would not cause me harm, either way, a short discussion about the camping prospects and recent cuts to all hotel expenses, resulted in an invitation to say at his house. Now, rest assured I don’t normally accept invitations for accommodation from passing cars in the streets of foreign towns, well, not from men anyway.
It quickly became clear that Tony, the driver, was making a very genuine offer to help a fellow cyclist and I nervously followed him back to his house. On arrival, Tony showed me his bikes, introduced me to his massive (but friendly) dog and tiny new kitten called Ping Pong. He showed me round his beautiful home , set me up in a bedroom, gave me a towel so I could shower and then explained he had to leave for a ‘hot date’ and to make myself at home!!! I couldn’t quite believe what had just happened, all I could say to Tony as he showed me around was, ‘that’s amazing, thank you.’
Tony, I salute you, you are a credit to the human race. You have set the bar very high for the rest of Belgium and beyond.
This is by far the single greatest random act of kindness and trust I have ever experienced and I know longer need to ask myself, ‘What was I thinking?’