A couple of days with my European family in Karlsruhe and I am off to cycle my way down through England. I packed my bike onto a fast train to Amsterdam then a frustrating exchange at an information booth about buses to the Ferry port only got my goat up. Instead of staying calm I put my bike back together and peddled 30 kms against a stiff flatland wind to my overnight ferry to Newcastle on Tyne. The ferry loomed large on the horizon, every year there are fewer ferries plying the seas around Europe as the discount airlines leave them uncompetitive. I find them romantic.
My bike and I join the transport queue to board the ferry. Trucks sit idling on the large dock, cars full of holiday makers sit in neat rows and closer to the gaping mouthlike ship’s ramp are the middle aged motor bikers and finally there is me and my trusty bicycle. The leather jacket brigade and I are uneasy roommates they glare at me, I look away. Finally we are gestured on board. The Harley Davidson crew go immediately to the bar whilst I go to clean the chain grease off everything after my unscheduled cycle to the port.
I love the thought of leaving Amsterdam in the late afternoon, watching Europe disappear and waking to fog and grey skies in Northern England. I am not disappointed. The following morning under threatening skies I wait for the same semi trailers to disembark, the cars and finally the motorbikes. I am just far enough behind the motorbikes not to breathe in their fumes as they rev away inside the bowels of the ship.
I’m straight into panic mode once off the ship when my new navigation app sends me around the harbour twice and minutes later guides me towards the Tyne river. Grrr, but wait a sign tells me a local ferry will cut out a road through the ugly bits of Newcastle.
Minutes later I am shooting South along the North Sea shoreline with a light wind in my face but I don’t care. Even drizzle doesn’t deter me. That night I am 115 kms down the coast in the town of Thirsk and feel like I am back in control.
The countryside is magnificent and I have a few perfect days shooting along through the Yorkshire dales squeezed between hedgerows hearing birds that are far more melodic than most in Australia but don’t have the bold colours. I see fields of golden wheat on death row. Heavy drooping heads only days away from the whirling guillotine of the farmer’s harvester. I startle already neurotic squirrels and spook a couple of beautiful copper chested pheasants just minding their own business. Wood pigeons lift on instinct as I whirl past surprised that I have found their isolated forest.
I have plans for a day at the Greenbelt festival. It was always going to be one of my more testing days. First I had to negotiate the streets of an unruly Doncaster and a few people who still hadn’t managed to get home. A street sweeper was choking on the mall litter and an amorous couple were entwined in lust or keeping warm. The lady wore a tasteful black plastic dress with a matching black sheer top and that was pretty much it. I’ll put my money on them both just trying to keep warm or maybe just holding on to life.
The Doncaster station was just waking up, a brand new train pulled in and quickly filled. Soon I was being directed onto the cyclists carriage by a station hand who assisted me in storing my bike for the journey South to Peterborough. Such service ? Well I’d paid £50 for what I call a short trip but English rail is bleedingly expensive.
I’m soon in Peterborough but only long enough to get my bearings then I snake my way across the countryside towards Kettering. The rolling hills are being shaved of their summer crop, dust rises like small fires on distant hills. Much has already been harvested and the stalks stick out of the ground like my old man’s prickly beard. It’s hot, I was not expecting 30c, everyone told me that the Bank Holiday weekend was renown for rain and disappointment.
I peddle on, signs for the Greenbelt festival start to pepper the roadside. Finally I’m into Kettering and I drop my bike and freshen up. Lucks with me and I get a lift in the ‘artists bus’ right into the festival door. “So what are you performing today” asks the bus driver. “Nothing actually” I reply after frantically running through my potential repertoire. There is stony silence, I squirm, I should be on the punters bus. The festival is buzzing, a predominately white English Christian crowd in sandals and long flowing hair are the demographic.
The nearby hillside is littered with tents and flapping hippy flags. It’s the type of festival that people return to year after year bumping into familiar faces and witnessing an eclectic program of the arts. Political discussions, environmental issues, storytelling, dance, hillbilly, soul, blues and of course a face painting booth.
The food stalls were just as eclectic with a fair sway towards vegan yet there were a few defiant proud meat stalls. Yes no one does roast pork like the Poms. I’m drawn to the ‘we only sell roast pork sandwich stand.’ I’m handed a bun crammed with proper stuffing, tacky wet meat, crunchy crackling and a big dollop of thick apple sauce. I drown out all around me with an audible sigh as I sit on the grass and scoff the lot.
I wander the beautiful grounds of the festival. It is on Boughton estate a massive 11,000 acres. A private tract of land held by one family since the 17th century. The festival goes somewhere towards paying for the battalion of gardeners needed to keep the monstrous grounds in order. At dusk that soft English Summer light comes into play bouncing a reflective sheen off the water feature as big as Sydney harbour.
I celebrate my luck at getting here by buying a pint at The Jesus Arms… I nearly spill my first drink as I hear its name explained. We wanted a pub that if Jesus swung by he would feel happy throwing back a couple. I agree and have another but it didn’t make me feel any more religious just a little wobbly on my pins.
I’m here to see the Fantastic Negrito. I saw him play in Melbourne around Easter and was mesmerised. Greenbelt festival is an eclectic but churchy type of festival so it will be interesting to see how a raw, strutting peacock will be viewed by the crowd. I catch a couple of guys from Toronto first, the Deadbeatz, loud frenetic big boogie beats. I’d seen them drinking mid afternoon at my hotel, always a good sign, like a good tune up. They were wild, energetic, hot and sweaty and loved by all.
I wandered back to the main stage. No one knew what they were getting other than Fantastic Negrito has won two Grammy awards. From the first song he was struttin’, pushin’ and wriggling to the crowd. I turned wondering if I’d see mothers clasping their hands over their children’s eyes but no, even the mums were jiggling it all about.
I left an hour and a bit later, sweaty and buzzing and waited in a broad field for a double decker bus due at midnight to take me back to Kettering town. On board was just five of us but we felt like a hundred reliving the show we had just witnessed. The other ten thousand Greenbelters would have been feeling their way back to their tents with their head torches on. I was heading to a soft bed.
I meander after Kettering the train has taken some of my kms away. I head towards Biggleswade and then Lavenham. My Kamoot navigation continually wants to show me every tow path, public footpath and bridle path. It makes for interesting riding and the occasional lifting of my bike over locked gates or farmers fences. The real surprise has been stinging nettles, a species unknown to me but with the bite of a red back spider. You only have to brush against them with your bare legs to have a sharp sting linger. Give me snakes and spiders any day, they are much easier to see.
The constant over these days is the whirling of harvest machines, the sweet smell of country and freshly cut hay. Ok, every so often a sharp aroma of dead squirrel or watery rat makes my handle bars wobble but it’s generally good. Late afternoons are best, the light is soft and flat like one of the old masters paintings. My eyes focus on distant lines of shimmering poplars bending ever so slightly in the wind.
I hover on the outskirts of Greater London, near Harlow and some lovely canals littered with boats. It’s the last of the countryside though. The following morning I’m amongst the lorries and throng of bustling cars till I reach the bike paths and then other traffic melts away. Quiet backstreets and cycle only laneways gets me all the way to my hotel in the East End near the British Museum. I drop my bags and venture down to the river Thames. No destination just trying to trigger as many old memories as I can but London is under constant change and I finally turn back at Hammersmith bridge barely recognising anything.
I catch up with a friend, Rosie to see a show at the underbelly festival called Rouge. An hour of trapeze, fire eating and athletic strength all tied together by a busty opera singer who can’t keep her hands off the sweaty acrobats.
Then a cab ride to St Pancras old church not far away. This should have been simple and boring but Rosie and the London cabbie get into a very heated / animated discussion about what is wrong with England. To her credit Rosie didn’t slash the taxi seats nor threaten to drag him out of the drivers seat, kept her cool she did. We stumbled out into the warm night to hear Dan Sultan belting out his songs of the Kimberley outback a long way from home. It’s midnight, London shouldn’t be so warm and after waving Rosie off on her train I zigzag through the streets back to my hotel. Tomorrow Dublin.
A long weekend in Dublin was a good antidote to the English cycling. A chance to sleep in, a chance to catch up with my uncle and his family. We celebrated a cluster of birthdays, ate delicious food and almost drank within moderation. We visited the farmers market right in the centre of Dublin early on Saturday morning. My uncle knows most of the producers well and has been to many of their farms over the years. He’s curious and wants to know something about where his food comes from. We talk to the greengrocer, the cheese lady and the goat breeder all get good custom and best of all a connection with those eating their product.
I need to stretch my legs and grab a Dublinbike from near my uncle’s house and peddled around the city through Phoenix Park and along the canals which are my known navigation points of this city. It was a short break in Dublin but always good to see my uncle, hear a few more family yarns and catch up on their lives far away.
- Then I’m back into London late afternoon. It’s taken all day completed wasted with airline delays and heavy security checks. This can so often be modern travel. It’s far from seamless.
- I catch a play down at the National theatre, a cold looking concrete monolith of a building next to the Thames. The play is by the Sydney Theatre Company, Secret River about early settlement on the Hawkesbury River near Sydney. It’s a well produced and well acted play with a terrific cast of white settlers and aboriginals. It paints a rather bleak take on the early days of white settlement. It gets a justified standing ovation for the way in which the story has been told. I walk back over Waterloo bridge in the warm night air admiring the iconic illuminated view of London but I’m engulfed with the guilt of the savagery shown by the early white arrivals to my country. I need a pint of Guinness before I can go to bed it’s been a long day.
Out of my fancy London room and into the lift for a highly anticipated full English breakfast. The lift fills then stops a final time at level 1, surely you can use the stairs is the look on everyone’s face. In he hops, a large gent and relaxes his frame into all the remaining space. Suddenly the lift starts flashing overload. He grumbles to himself then steps out, takes the stairs. We meet again in the breakfast room. He is in front of me shovelling most of the remaining rashers of bacon onto his overflowing plate. He looks up, a momentary wave of guilt on his face then he’s off for a serve of the sausages.
Later in the morning I gather my bike and wheel it up the road to St Pancras station for the Eurostar to Brussels. They have a special room where you can pack your bike in a box and then do a silent pray that it arrives at your destination. I went and stood in a long queue for my train like a cow going to market. My train number was called and on mass jostled onto a train like there’d be one seat short ?
By the time I’d eaten an overpriced sandwich, a piece of fruitcake and a coffee I was in Brussels. It was 4pm. The jittery bit inside of me had me quickly assemble the bike and tear off into peak hour traffic to take advantage of a few hours of daylight. You see I’ve given myself the task of riding 1200 kms in ten days, any klms I grab today is a bonus. I find myself at sunset 40 kms outside of Brussels on a rutted walking path atop a canal shoulder. Suddenly my GPS tells me to turn right and a rather grand old hotel with stately grounds looms into sight. I could never have found this place without the assistance of Komoot the navigation app. It was an old school hotel with big rooms, a heavily timbered bar full of exotic alcohol and linen napkins at the dining table. Another dark ale perhaps ? Asked the dusty old waiter. I had a long way to fall after tonight.
Last nights ride has left me already deep into country which is perfect. The city noises only jade me by keeping my senses forever on high alert. Early that morning it’s just me, no traffic, no rumble of machinery just the sounds of me and country. My eyes clear, my ears sharpened and my nose starts to twitch at raw farming smells. I saw birds, smelt freshly cut hay and heard the wind whistling through the trees. I’m a city dweller and these senses take a back seat, get muffled down with so much other stuff going on. Out here there is no filter needed.
The day’s fall into a pattern. A hot shower to loosen the body especially my legs and shoulders which tighten after long days on the bike. A few stretches but never really enough then down into the breakfast room to fill the petrol tank for the day. Repack my few precious items and then give the room a last sweep of my eye. My bike is usually in a garage locked to an old bed, a fridge handle or a disused cooker. It says nothing as I load the pannier bags fill my water bottles and clip on my handlebar bag. But like myself I know my bike is happiest when it is freewheeling down a hill or spinning silently next to a river. Neither of us like the long slow grind of the mountains but we both glaze over and try to get a rhythm. I lift my head only when I can see the crest of the hill ahead and prepare to take in some deep air. I commence the exhilaration of the downhill my legs appreciating the rest but it’s often over in minutes but what joy.
I had a rough plan to cut across Germany but nothing too precise other than reaching Passau and then following the Danube as it cut through the Countryside to Vienna. I had ridden from Passau along the Danube, the Romantic Straße, in 2001, eighteen years ago. Robyn was following me using ferries, trains and local buses. This is pre easy access internet and we would agree a location to meet each night. Simple times, simple plan. All went well for a week through the Czech Republic and beyond Passau. Early one morning on a narrow section of the path near the town of Melk I startled a farm dog which lunged at me causing me to fall. I severed some muscles at my elbow. On my own and 15 kms from Melk I had no choice but to pick myself up and peddle on. Arriving at the small hospital I leant my bike against the front entry and approached casualty. I was in that hospital for four days my bike and panniers stood untouched . The surgeon was the only English speaking member of staff. He phoned the winery guesthouse Robyn was waiting at. If I embellish this she was on her third glass of crisp local white wine and asked, Jeff who ? The cycling was over. She came the next day and saw my bicycle waiting at the door. Some days later she helped me wheel the bike to the station and onto Vienna. Today I rode carefully as I wound my way around similar bends of the river near Melk.
The big difference on this tour has been my navigation. Usually my Achilles heel, spin me around and I will always walk in the wrong direction. Robyn was a master navigator so I didn’t need to worry. It had cost me dearly in the past usually ten percent extra on my days but I’ve met heaps of interesting people because of it and often arrived late. This time I am using a wahoo bicycle computer and Komoot navigation app. Other than planning my distance Komoot will offer up suggested routes to my next hotel depending on the settings. road bike or touring bike. Touring bike sounds great but wrongly immediately that I can bush bash walking tracks and rutted farm paths. I’m in between but the routes have been magical and always incorporate the best each town or city has to offer. My wahoo computer flashes an arrow on the screen ensuring I don’t make a wrong turn in theory. It flashes red when I deviate… Overall it has allowed me to cycle with more confidence than I should through many a city where I don’t even speak the language. Bravo.
So lasting impressions. It would have to be the golden Autumn harvest. I watched farm machinery slice and dice their crops from Northern England to London then again from Brussels to Vienna. A variety of crops but all awaiting premium growth and dry conditions before they were gathered. The bare ground left to take a deep breathe then be turned and left exposed for the winter. And so the cycle goes, my route often meaning I shared these quiet farm paths with trucks laden with the rewards of the Summer harvest.
Gee it’s my last morning of riding, it’s come on me quickly. The last few days I’ve barely been out of breathe at day’s end a mixture of improved fitness and flatter land. By mid morning I’ve left the rolling hills to be back on the wide flat Romantic Straße alongside the Danube. It’s a hive of cycle activity with this ride on many peoples bucket list but that doesn’t mean they can ride. I find myself continually ringing my bell and swerving around meandering groups staring up at some old castle on a nearby hill.
A couple of lean young riders swoop past heads down legs flashing. I figure why not chase them and within minutes I’m in their slipstream. It takes them a minute to realise I’ve joined them and I see the leader indignant that a tourer with pannier bags and handlebar bag can be keeping up. He puts his foot to the floor and for a minute I lose them but slowly peg them back as his partner cannot keep up the burning pace. This goes on for over an hour as we flash along at over 32 kms/ hr and I have a broad smile on my face. The leader keeps looking back, eventually they pull over I have dented his ego. But my touring donkey bike and I have shown them that it’s possible and I wave as I pass. He nods, it is as much acknowledgement as I was ever going to get.
I arrive in Vienna later that afternoon, the wind at my back and bang on time admittedly I’m a little weary. I’m certainly fitter, leaner and grateful for good health. But there is always a certain amount of fatigue which you somehow hold back until it’s over and then it sets in. I slumped against the wall of my shower that afternoon closed my eyes and let the water run over me.
My last night and I caught up with Stefan, a cyclist who lives just out of Vienna. I met Stefan five years ago crossing Canada https://www.cyclecanada.com/ . It was great to see him again and recount some of the adventures of that epic camping tour and the other riders we shared the journey with. We walked down to the Belvedere Palace nearby then feasted on a schnitzel each which is evidently what you do in Vienna. Stefan was the strongest rider on the Canada tour and left the rest of us in his smoke his riding style economical, his bike never making a sound.
* Early Saturday morning on Vienna main station platform 4. and next to me stood a serious smoker. He dragged hard on his smoke and immediately began coughing so violently I could feel the phlegm rising in his throat. And then eyes watering another drag… it would be a three hour train ride. He was a walking chimney and I hoped he wasn’t sitting near me.
Half an hour before we pulled into Salzburg I dragged my bag out of the luggage rack and headed to the doorway. I spotted my smoking friend as me brushed past me bound for the toilets. I stood there balancing my bike bag and panniers at the carriage doorway just trying to stay upright. Suddenly a nearby alarm sounded loud and shrill, the glass doors between carriages slammed shut. A pose of train inspectors came from nowhere. The leader had a large key dangling from his hand and he was heading straight towards the toilet sign flashing madly. My smoking man couldn’t wait the last thirty minutes. As the door was reefed open smoke wafted from the cubicle and a smirking naughty man stepped out. I thought that would be the end of it but just then a stern female inspector arrived, his laughter stopped. It was all in German but I heard police mentioned. He began to protest I didn’t understand but I knew the gravity in the inspectors voice. He slumped back into his seat awaiting the worst. Sure enough as I alight the train there are four uniformed polizei waiting to board. My smoking friends day has just got a whole lot worse. Oh to travel and see the raw theatre of life.