6– 9 May 2008
Bath, Bournemouth, Poole
Can it really be just two and a half years since I picked up that benignly subversive book?A mere eighteen months since my confident announcement, ‘At some point in the future, I shall be cycling round the world’? Has it actually come now to the point of embarking on an excursion that is luring me away from the familiar into the unknown, separating me from those I love dearly? It appears so.
My elder brother, Rick, arrives the night before, my younger brother, Cogs, the morning of my departure. Cogs and I discuss security of my front panniers: how to stop them being easily lifted by a passing opportunist, at the same time not being a tedious hassle for me when removing and replacing them. He comes up with a simple idea: to screw a small u-bend shackle onto one of the restraining clips of each pannier, thereby preventing the clip from lifting and releasing, at the same time being fairly quick for me to operate.When not in use, each shackle dangles from a piece of cord neatly spliced and attached to the carrying strap of its pannier.
As the time of departure arrives, a significant little crowd of family, friends and neighbours gathers outside the house. Standing in my driveway, under the cherry tree pendulous with pastel pink blossom, I take in as much as I can of the scene, suddenly acutely aware that I shall not be seeing my beloved children, my home sweet home, these familiar, friendly faces again for two whole years.
Aftermuch bonhomie, a short speech and a cycle once around the block, finally, after two and a half years of preparation, it is time. On 6 May2008, at 10.15 am, I cycle away from my home inAlmondsbury, to encouraging cheers, clicking cameras and well-wishes, the dichotomy of
sadnessand excitement – and, admittedly, some trepidation, bubbling (or is it churning?) within me.
The weather is almost balmy: warm and sunny, with a light breeze. Accompanying me for this first day are my son and two brothers; my daughter does not do cycling.At the end of the road we turn left, left again, onto and along the busy A38, looking over to the right for a final look at the unforgettably familiar sight of the old and the new Severn bridges. On then under the M5 motorway, past Filton airport, at the crest of the next hill pausing briefly for photos – my tall, gangly, teenage son insisting on removing his helmet and re-working his hair before posing for the camera.
Our departure was timed to coincide with the customary morning coffee break at the Centre for Deaf Studies at Bristol University, when deaf and hearing staff daily prise themselves away from their office desks to meet in the coffee room during this period, face-to-face encounters being essential in the visual environment of sign language communication.
I came to be working at the Centre as a result of attending British Sign Language classes. Formerly a physiotherapist, I changed career to become a full-time mum for eleven years to my two children, Jessica and Daniel. During this time I started learning British Sign Language, the result of watching a friend and her deaf parents-in-law signing to each other and, like many people, I was entranced by the beauty of the language.After attending classes for a couple of years, a temporary job in administration came up at the Centre. It was only for six months, but as my father likes to say, ‘There’s nowt s’permanent as temp’ry.’ Gradually I became a permanent fixture, eleven years at the time of my trip departure.This is my place of work from which I have been granted a 2-year and 3-month sabbatical to cycle round the world: two years for the cycling, three months to re-acclimatise on my return.
Eight miles to the Centre for Deaf Studies brings us punctually to the coffee and cake break and another touching send-off, with balloons, poppers and more photographs, as well as one colleague reiterating that she plans to join me in NorthAmerica to cycle a section. Afriend presents me with one of those old-fashioned ‘ding-ding’bicycle bells, which we fit onto the handlebars, alongside a little plastic hand from the deaf staff, a touching reminder of my signing colleagues.After speeches, smiles, sobbing farewells (well, slight exaggeration), my entourage and I setoff once more. Of the balloons,
one bursts just down the road, the other between Bristol and Bath.We descend Park Street, cross the city centre and join the Bristol–Bath cycle track, the first Sustrans cycle route in the country and thirteen miles of easy gradient along a disused railway path.
Considering it is a weekday, there is a surprising number of pedestrians and cyclists along the path, the pace, at times, slowing to a leisurely loiter, and we take longer than expected to reach Bath. For the final leg to a friends’house, we have a steep, oh so very steep hill, up which I puffingly feel my hundred and twenty pounds of bicycle and baggage. But that is forgotten when we are greeted with champagne and hugs by friends, Jane and Peter, and my daughter and boyfriend, who duly arrived by car.
It is now three thirty and the thought of continuing another twenty miles or so does not hold that much appeal, even though there are a mere twenty-eight on the clock. I need little persuasion, therefore, to graciously acquiesce to the offer of an exclusive campsite in the back garden. I pitch my tent, the front door perfectly placed to appreciate a picturesque panorama of Bath set in the bowl of surrounding hills.
And now another round of goodbyes ensues. But, away from the partying of the previous partings, these are rather more subdued and reluctant, prolonged embraces with my two brothers, heart-aching hugs with my children. Jessica will be in her mid twenties on next meeting, Daniel will have celebrated his key-to-the-door twenty-first.They leave and I watch until they disappear into the distance, waving forlornly.
Despite careful planning for this trip, inadequacies are already showing up. During the night I strive haplessly for some degree of comfort from my pillowed bundle of clothes. After a fitful sleep, I awake in the morning to the hush of a suspended mist in the valley, bright sunshine above; partake of perfect scrambled eggs, porridge oozing with darkly-melting muscovado sugar, richly-brewed coffee.And more final farewells.
Eight thirty next morning sees me sailing down the steep hill, through the centre of Bath, to join the Kennet &Avon canal towpath, striking for Bournemouth and another friend’s house. It is a bit of a tall order, about seventy-five miles, to reach my desired destination today and I am quite prepared to stop short for the night. I meander along the canal – could the whole trip be so easy and congenial? There is a stillness in the air, as you only experience beside water. Quietly smiling with pleasure at the
passing languid scenery, I note the varied names of numerous narrowboats: Just So, Lady of Mann, Utopia, Chaos, Crinkly Starfish.
The day turns out to be much longer than it should have been, not helped by the fact that I manage to become lost as soon as I veer away from the canal! Is this a foretaste of things to come? Desire somehow overcomes deliberation, as, instead of sensibly stopping short, I persevere with dogged determination for a marathon thirteen and a half hours and eighty-four miles, eventually to arrive in Bournemouth, in the dark,at friend Colin’s house. I am feeling very unwell: in a shaky stupor, light-headedly hungry and immensely tired – but extremely glad to be with a familiar face.
Colin and his Norwegian wife, Inger, are friends from Saudi days, twenty years previously. During my three years in the Middle East, I learned a smattering of Arabic, written and spoken, and something of the culture, useful now for this excursion.
I stay for two nights, after which it is a pleasant cycle ride along the seafront towards the neighbouring harbour town of Poole. Atext message from my children makes the surprising announcement that they are currently driving down with their partners and a friend, for the (definitely) last time, to wave me off on the late-night ferry to Cherbourg. I pedal on in excited anticipation.
To be honest, I have had some doubts during the last couple of days that I am capable of doing the trip. In the two and a half years since the notion implanted itself so confidently, I have blithely prepared for this moment. Now though, uncertainty is skulking in the shadows, offering
all kinds of tempting negatives: I am not the greatest of map-readers; my experience of cycle touring is alarmingly limited; I can barely mend a puncture.Yes, I have a load of bicycle spares with me, but how on earth do I tighten, loosen, replace a spoke or a brake pad?!And what about camping? It is definitely not my first port of call for a comfortable night’s accommodation, getting up and dressed in the middle of the night to traipse over a soggy field to the dubious communal loo block. And let’s not forget potential encounters with nasty beasties and creepy- crawlies, such as slithery snakes and spindly spiders, dangerous dogs and marauding men.
How on earth am I going to cope – all on my own?
Then I find a letter from my children, secreted into my map case.
What they each write is wonderful: loving, selfless and full of encouragement. My daughter’s letter is affirming.
‘I just wanted to make sure you knew how proud I am of you.This is an amazing thing you are doing and I have admiration pouring from my very soul . . .You can’t come back until you’re ready, and when you do we will still be here. Have a fantastic time.You are going into the unknown, the dark. But follow the light and you will return.’
My son’s letter is reassuring.
‘Don’t worry about us . . . Just enjoy yourself, have no regrets, but be safe . . .Wherever you are, however many times you have read this letter, take a picture. Of anything. Something that will remind you of us.’
I know this venture of mine is not easy for my children, even though my son’s initial reaction was, ‘Yeah, go for it, Mum!’ My daughter’s, on the other hand, was to be angry with me, pronouncing, ‘You’re going to be killed!’ Of course, I can understand their fears and worries.After all, the media is effective propaganda for such feelings and beliefs. But, even without that, I am their mother, and would it not be slightly odd if they did not display doubts and concerns? If it was either of them going off, I would be reacting in the same way. Therefore, to have these letters from them is, and will be throughout my two years, a huge support and encouragement.They are amazing children and I feel truly blessed. I entrust them both to God’s care, realising that missing them is going to be the hardest part of the trip.
And now, finally, finally, I really am leaving the shores of England, to an emotional parting with my children and to feeling, overwhelmingly, very much on my own.Wow! This is really it! Eyes brimming, I push my bicycle onto the ferry, away from my children.A while later, the vessel slips its moorings and sails silently out on the night tide, heading for the far side of the Channel.
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