Wednesday, 8 October 2008

First email

Dear All,

At last my much promised communal email.

'Four, five, eight...I feel great!' - my mantra for many months prior to pedalling off. It was my departure date. My way of keeping focused and that regardless of what happened up to then I was determined I would simply cycle off south. After a few months of this my so called friends renamed my mantra...'Four, five, eight, it is beginning to grate' - perhaps they had a point!

On 4/5/8 a mixture of family, friends and colleagues gathered to give me a sentimental send off and wave me on my way to my first pit stop, Carnoustie. Stonehaven, Jonstone and Arbroath were the various places where two friends and my brother had cycled to and helped to keep the head wind at bay. However, after a 69 mile canter to Carnoustie by the time my 14 year old nephew, Stuart and I had arrived we were both a little lame. Some family and friends had arranged to camp with me on my first night away so a veritable feast awaited us. There was much love, laughter, merriment and merlot. My friend Neela, who absolutely detests camping, had made a special effort but the thought of being trapped in a tent was too much and she spent the night anaesthetising herself with alcohol to make the occasion more palatable. The rest of us had no such excuse!

After a slow cycle to St andrews I met an American who thought that 80% of the British army consisted of Scots. I suggested that it was highly unlikely as there were only 5 million Scots compared to over 55 million English, Welsh and Irish. He hadn't thought of the figures but neither had the local campsite! I half considered camping in St Andrews until I noticed the price... £15 (75% of my daily budget) - I know it is the home of golf but I thought this price was a little below par! It worked out fine though, as a few miles out of town I knocked on a door requesting to sleep behind a nearby derelict house. However, the neighbours, Ollie and Gordon kindly offered me their garden. This type of warmth and generosity has been repeated on numerous occasions since.

It was then a brisk pedal to Burntisland just north of Edinburgh were I had a bed for the night at my friend Leila's parents house. Johnstone, who was no slouch at 77 suggested that we go for a wee walk. He took me on what can only be described as an assault course - as we clambered over rocks, sand, stairs, steps and slippery slopes whilst he gave me a 'running' commentary on the history of the area. I was knackered afterwards and needed all the nutrition that Jeanette was willing to load upon me. Johnstone introduced me to his 95 year old neighbour who entertained us both with stories about the war. At one stage soldiers were allowed 1 litre of water each day to cover all needs - drinking, washing, cleaning clothes and cooking. I am carrying 4 litres of water just for drinking and cooking!

Approaching the Forth Road Bridge I found myself on the east side which happened to be closed for cyclists due to repair work so I had to go back a couple of miles and up the correct side. Inscribed on the handle bars of the bike are the words 'Devotion to Motion', I can handle this on my bike but not on a bridge. As I cycled over the structure it swayed back and forth (aptly named). At the apex I deliberately stopped and had some grub to face my fear of heights. Needless to say the nutrition did not nullify the effect. I concluded that the bridge had more movement than Aberdeen's midfield.

I cycled through Edinburgh down to Dalkeith pitching my tent in a deserted campsite behind a petrol station. I awoke to birds bantering, rabbits roaming and copious condensation in the tent - I still had to work out the ventilation via the zillions of zips. The only thing that was dry was outside the tent - my brooks saddle, which had been cosy under its all weather cover.

I started cycling to Wooler about 55 miles away but as visabilty was virtually nil it was definately high viz vest on. On the road to Wooler I took a wee detour to look at Soutre Aisle, which was once the location of a medieval hospital from 12th -17th century dedicated to treating poor travellers and pilgrims, the aged, sick and infirm. By the time I had struggled up the sheer slope (1200ft) I was feeling a little infirm myself. I recuperated by scoffing oranges, nuts and raisins and 2 chocolate bars! The panoramic view allows you to see at least 60 Grampian and Highland peaks. As it was misty, my view was minimal but as I had already peaked coming up the hill I was in no mood for more!

As I approached Wooler it was obvious why it was called so, as I was surrounded by sheep in all directions. I booked into the only campsite and the only place that appeared to be a sheep free zone - what it wasn't free of was ducks that followed you about like sheep! They quaked throughout the whole night, tried to steal my food and one even slobbered over my shoes! I still had to get the hang of the tent as it looked like something put up by a jerry builder but it was not going to happen tonight as I continually tripped over the guy ropes whilst trying to avoid all my feathered friends!

Next it was 20 miles along the road to Alnham Norththumberland to say hello to Ali, a yoga teacher I had recently met in Aberdeen. He had warned me that he lived in a converted barn on the top of a hill. He lives 1 mile from the closest neighbour and 1 mile from any road. I had to push my bike up a long path and then across 2 fields with yet more sheep and curious cows who increasingly encroached and encircled me the further up the field I went. I eventually had to stop for a moment and ask them to mooove back - they ignored me! Ali and Judy were lovely people and in such a location it was easy to recharge myself and my equipment. My legs ached but I was content with the calming company!

I cycled through Northumberland National Park following the National Cycle Route but it had you ploughing through ploughed fields, my shoes got covered in shit and at some points I was almost going in reverse so I began to be a little more selective with which parts of the route I would go on. What I couldn't be selective with were the hills. Ali and Judy had giggled a little when they said I faced a few hills on the next section. Bloody hell! - even the hills had hills! Just when you reached the summit of one, the gradient grew, the lactic acid in my legs went berserk and my mind swept through my belongings wondering what, if anything, I could dump. That night I camped in a field right next to a road which had street lamps. I didn't have to use my own lamp which is just as well because I had to get up for the loo 3 times. This is always a bit of a palaver getting dressed, putting on shoes, unzipping and zipping everything back up. I lay awake for ages and just when I was beginning to drop off I heard an animal rummaging and scuffling about beside my tent. I didn't know what it was and I was was not about to find out - always aware that I am sleeping in their house so I turned over and went to sleep. In the morning my high visability vest had vanished. So no doubt there is some poor bloody fox running around with my vest on -God help it the next time the hounds come out to hunt!

The next day with no high viz vest and more mist than in a turkish bath I felt a little vulnerable charging along the A68. I had to make do with a sheet of bright yellow card attached to my panniers given by a lady in a roadside cafe. I stopped in Tow Law for lunch where I was offered a bed for the night and a lot more. Tanya, the girl behind the counter said that the first night would have to be platonic but anything would go on the second night - I decided to go! She didn't charge me for lunch but let me charge my phone! I gave her a big hug and kiss and as I left she picked up 2 large paper hankies and started mock crying and shouting that I should not go. The same cafe had Mick the plasterer, who was plastered, and hobbled in with a bright illuminious green one around his left leg. It had only happened 2 days ago but already he was driving and back at work using stilts to plaster ceilings - if I am honest I have to admit to being a little envious of his high visability!

The A66 peripheral route around Middlesborough is a dual carriageway with aspirations to be a motorway. It is a mad road and as I was resting (recovering) in a lay-by having some coffee and banana sandwiches a fellow cyclist stopped to check that I was okay. He was concerned that I did not have a high viz on and gave me his - which was lovely but what then was he going to use? He wasn't wrong though. I battered down the road for almost 20 miles trying to keep to the alloted (periodic) cycle path and with my high viz vest and day glow strip I wasn't watching my back - I was too busy trying to miss all the debris on the side of the road. Glass, stones, car parts and various other odds and ends littered the 'cycle path' whilst cars and lorries thundered past a few inches from my elbow. Although I still had to cross slip roads I was more concerned about my tyres as I charged along at up to 20 miles an hour. Bang! my first and only puncture so far. I took 30 minutes to fix it and with day-light dipping decided to come off the main drag, as it was exactly that! After 5 miles through housing estates I came upon another main road but by then it was pitch black and I still had to find a bed for the night. I stopped at a house with a large garden and more lights than a flood-lit football pitch and asked the owner, Peter, if I could camp in his garden, he very kindly agreed. After over 6 hours on the bike covering more than 70 miles and with a secure place to sleep, it didn't take long for that to happen!

The next couple of days I cycled across the Yorkshire Moors and down the coast taking in Whitby, Scarborough, Filey and Bridlington. It was warm and sunny and with the sea air nourishing my nostrils I had frequent breaks just simply sitting and watching the waves. As the road to Hull was flat I hurried along to the Humber Bridge and sat for an hour watching the sunset whilst munching on banana and biscuit sandwiches. After the Humber, I then cycled for a further hour on a deserted dual carriageway. It was sunny and mild and the cycling was like a meditation. I left the road at a wee place called Elsham and pedalled along the paths and lanes in a calm and contented mood heading for the chiming church bells. It was 9 pm and as yet I still had to find a field to sleep in. I asked some folk leaving the church if they knew of a nearby campsite - someone suggested I sleep in the church graveyard but I thought it already looked quite full! I eventually found a quiet field and hid in behind a hedgerow. The grass was very long so when I first climbed in the tent it was like sleeping on a waterbed as I flopped about trying to flatten the grass under my ground-sheet but eventually making it into a comfortable cushion. After cycling over 70 sweaty miles and sleeping without a shower I woke up and realised that with the heat and humidity my body had become one homogeneous block. My chin was stuck to my chest, my arms felt like they were tacked to my torso and my legs longed for some lateral movement after feeling glued together in the 30 cm's of space allowed in the mummified sleeping bag. As I moved I heard a synchronised 'schsloooping' sound as my limbs snapped free looking for fresh air! I jumped out of the tent gazed across the green fields then practised 15 minutes of yoga. After, I cycled the 5 minutes to the nearest petrol station to wash my hands and face. I bought a cup and coffee and drank it whilst I decided my route.

Without realising it, in the next 3 days I covered 190 miles. I travelled from south of the Humber via Peterborough down to St Ives. It poured all the way to Peterborough but it gave me a chance to try out my waterproof leggings which came with attached covering for the feet. I was like a wee boy pedalling along delighted that my feet were remaining dry! I pushed through Peterborough only stopping to ask a taxi driver the way. I listened to the drivers diligent directions which must have lasted for at least 5 minutes. I kept nodding knowingly but really I hadn't a clue. I cycled on until I spotted a chip shop. I ordered a veggie burger and a bag of chips but I think they must have taken pity on my sodden state as the burger arrived with a bag full of chips which would have fed a battalion. I saturated them in salt then drowned them with vinegar and sat outside in the dull, driech conditions savouring my supper. The carbohydrate kicked in and I shot off like a bullet along all the b roads picking my way along the counrty route to St Ives. I arrived late, picked my place between the tents, caravans and motorhomes, pitched my tent, had a luke warm shower then toasted my lot with a bottle of cider I had been given 3 days before in Whitby. Thank God tomorrow was a rest day! It was the FA Cup Final day and I was invited by a lovely couple, Paul and Mary into their trailer to enjoy the game, some grub (biggest Yorkshire puddings ever) and their gregarious company.

The next 5 days I stayed with my friend Marion's relatives in Chelmsford and Leigh on Sea. I was made to feel most welcome and it was nice to at last meet the people whom Marion is always talking about. Her sister Fiona, hubby Tim and kids, Ellie and Josh were great fun. I enjoyed walking the kids to school, listening to them playing the piano and counting all of Josh's medals from his various sporting interests - at the same wondering how he managed to stand up straight with the weight of them around his neck! Ellie had been good enough to give up her bed for me and I lay awake looking at all the posters and paraphernalia on the walls. They even surprised with a birthday cake and candles - someone had let them in on the secret - I wonder who? I then cycled the 24 miles to Leigh on Sea to stay with Marion's other sister Kathy and to wait for Marion to fly down and say hello. Again, the welcome and warmth was tangible as we spent a lovely few days relaxing, chatting, eating and drinking! I cooked breakfast one morning and they had the decency not to complain when it took over 90 minutes to appear on the plate - I was not used to cooking in a conventional kitchen!

I headed off late on the Sunday afternoon in the direction of the Dartford Bridge where cyclists were driven across on the back of a 4x4. After 45 miles I pushed the boat out and booked into a youth hostel just east of Gillingham. It was a budget buster at £20 for the night but this did include an 'all you can eat breakfast'. I was awake early next morning, showered, then did some breathing exercises but it was no use - I could not get my mind off the muesli that was downstairs in the breakfast bar. It was a fabulous feast and I sampled everything choosing to miss out only the cold meat! A downpour on the road to Dover combined with the head wind made the 45 miles seem a lot more. The roads flooded and I struggled to see anything with my glasses on or off. I stopped off at Canterbury to have a look at the cathederal but I was not in the mood to go in but enjoyed the wee walk around the town. I was sharing the ride with Thieu, a 59 year old Dutchman I had met at the hostel. I could not believe the equipment he was carrying - although he was not on a mountain bike, his bike was like a mountain but he assured me that he needed absolutely everything - I didn't doubt him but I didn't envy him either as each hill we came to, he virtually came to a standstill. He was a nice man though and had already cycled hundreds of miles with a debilitating condition - I admired his spirit! We said goodbye outside the McDonalds, just outside Dover after having stopped for a coffee. I had a bed for the night at my brother-in-laws cousins house and I asked one of the assistants if she knew the address. She certainly did - Frank had fitted her shower! I pedalled down to the street then looked up - another sheer slope! I started to cycle up but even the caffeine I had just consumed was not enough to carry me up it. I looked at my milometer...800 miles I had travelled from Aberdeen - it was enough! I pushed the bike up to number 76, settled in, settled down and enjoyed a lovely night with Ann, Frank, Justin and Chantell - not forgetting Molly the dog who had more toys than a nursery and was very happy to show me them all! Ann cooked a delicious meal which included a jug of gravy you could have bathed in!

After a calm crossing to Calais I was met by rain and completely clueless as to which direction to take. I sat in a cafe next to the tourist office for a couple of hours wondering which way to go. I eventually cycled around a bit and stumbled upon a youth hostel which had a snake like queue of kids waiting to be processed - not for me I thought! It was dull, rainy and cold and I headed south through the town stopping to buy some bread and tomatoes to go with my cheese and soup I already had. I decided to cycle for an hour down the coast but within a few miles I came upon a campsite - 7.5 euros (£6) perfect. I pitched the tent, showered then cooked food. Had a chat with Bob and Jen who had spent 6 weeks travelling in France but still had enough cereal left to provide me with breakfast! Then the storm began. Until then, I had been a wee bit preoccupied with my sore tooth, a filling I had repaired just before leaving and although I had settled up, the tooth had not settled down. The thunder and lightening however, placed my tooth in perspective. The tent prepared to take off as wind whipped beneath the outer layer, lightening illuminated my hoose like flashing xmas lights, then I realised that I was camped beneath the pseudo shelter of the trees. The relentless rain roared against my tent creating deafening decibels which suggested that at 12.50 am sleep was going to be superficial. There was nothing else for it but just to lie back, listen, look and dare I say it, pray as me and my wee tent were completely and utterly pounded and pulverised as the heavens heaved and the ground gyrated. To cap it all, with the constant sound of water my own waterworks had welled up but there was no way I was leaving the tent. After 90 minutes of mayhem the storm abated and I hung my head out and decided it was now safe enough to bleed my bladder, inspect my hoose and have a look at my poor bike which fortunately had had a teflon treatment (weather proofing) only a few hours before. Yet again the only thing dry was the smiling brookes saddle! Settling down again and although a little weary from fending off the fierceness of the storm it just seemed too silent for sleep and anyway my senses were still jumping as if I had drank a drum of coffee. I lay down and let the experience seep in - a little like the water - after my inner and outer tent had been compressed together in a match made from heaven. Having said that, I complimented myself on such a fine purchase - I guess that is tentamount to praise!

The problem with travelling alone is that you are always having to keep an eye on your belongings which after a while can become quite tiresome. Often the easiest solution is to take them wherever you go. The first Aldi I entered in France was great - the young woman behind the till understood my situation and allowed me to park my bike behind the tills. The second Aldi was not so 'open'. I entered the shop pushing my bike under the barriers where the trolleys travel and rested it against a pallet of peeled plum tomatoes. I was just about to approach a member of staff to ask if it was okay when one approached me! He was reacting as if I had brought a bomb into the store, not a bike. There was much gesticulating and frothing at the mouth - him, not me! I was frog marched back to the one way entrance where amidst all the commotion a master key was conjured up and the whole door was opened allowing me to reverse my bike out! Whilst sitting outside regaining my composure I was approached by 2 elderly ladies who were pushing a brand new bike - which they had just purchased from Aldi! With more of the same gesticulation but much less froth they explained that they wanted me to adjust the seat and handlebars. I rummaged through my panniers looking for my multi-tool not bothering to explain that I was no bike mechanic. However, I did manage a wee tweak here and there which seemed to please them no end. The lady wearing the tracksuit and trainers gingerly edged herself onto the bike, then zigzagged her way out of the car park whilst the other one thanked me profusely waving frantically as she drove off. I sat in the sun, ate an apple - which I had obviously bought earlier and smiled.

Campsites. Perhaps images of peace, tranquillity and relaxation come to the fore. Not always so! Electric hedge clippers, strimmers and mowers battle it out with barking dogs, couples arguing, couples making up, cars revving up, kids screaming, tv's roaring, tv aerials whining and campervans coming and going - which they do a lot as they are so bloody big they can hardly get into the allotted spaces which were designed for wee caravans or tents. Even the tents have become like tarduses (sp) with every possible possession crammed into them to make their experience of camping just like they never left home. In Veulettes just south of Dieppe after 50 miles of monsoon like mayhem I squelched upon a campsite which oozed pride and perfection. The toilets were pristine, the grass manicured to exact detail to the extent that when I popped my head out of the tent the following morning I almost lost my eyebrows as I was surprised by an early morning mower! Earlier in the week I camped on another deserted site right on the beach near to Merlimont. Although it was at the beach the ground was as hard as cement. It took 5 attempts trying to pitch my tent and push in the pegs - I still have the bruises on my hands! I ate scrambled eggs, cheese, bread, olives, cake, coffee and banana. I cleaned my pots with a little water and a lot of gravel and grass. Then I took a wee wander down to the shore and sat on the sand. Later, I lay awake for ages due to too many cups of coffee. I had just slipped into a slumber when I was awoken by a loud bleeping noise. I hadn't a clue what it was and felt a little disorientated. It turned out to be my mobile phone informing me that my sim card was out of memory! Once my heart had returned to its normal rate, I heaved a sigh of relief and went back to sleep. The following morning a maintenance man arrived who was obviously still keeping an eye on the place, his other eye was firmly focused on me, my tent and the fact that I was busy cooking my breakfast on one of the picnic benches. He strode across stern faced and started to explain that I should not have been there - he had a fair point! I whipped out the laminated copy of the newspaper article which had appeared in the local press before I left. It has a marvellous map of my route and a picture of me on my bike. He softened, smiled, then patted me on the back whilst suggesting that I should finish my breakfast - I did!

The first 2 weeks or so I was like a speedster dashing doon the dales. Whereas the last few weeks I have just dallied doon to Dieppe and beyond exploring the nooks and crannies of the Normandie coast. I now have heaps of time to fill in before I meet my brother, Steve, to cycle across France from Bordeaux to the Mediterranean coast. I then travel down to Barcelona to attend a 12 day meditation retreat. I guess after that then the real challenges will begin. This first period has given me a wee idea of what the nature of the trip will be like. Now I am in Fecamp about 150 miles down the French coast waiting for Steve, to pop across for the weekend. His friends, Francois and Rosy have very generously allowed me to stay in their house and cocoon myself in their computer room. However, my eyes are now square and I am beginning to babble so it is almost time to sign out.

Over a month has passed with almost 1100 miles pedalled. Already many memories are meshing my mind. Most days I struggle to remember what happened in the previous one without dipping into my diary. Yet this still seems so surreal. I am unsure what tomorrow will bring although it will probably involve more cheese and bread. However, I do feel very fortunate to be doing this so I would like to say thank you to everyone who has helped me to get away and to all who have helped me on my way. With this communal email I send many thanks and much love. Eric x

P.S. Sorry no snaps for the moment but I shall include them with the next email.


ross said...

seems to me you were born to do this adventure
i like your use of alliteration,
i look forward to reading your next blog part tomorrow ,for now i have a mut to walk

Anonymous said...

its an affay lang wye tae come for a fish supper Robert Adelaide Australia

indra_viim said...

hello eric smart forgot me? i'm indra from indonesia in the pangkalan city how are u now,,long time no see!!