I should really have seen it coming when my first night camping, the day I left London, was marred by a strict continuation of the rain that had soaked me all through the day. Somewhere in Kent, not in the grandest of moods, I drip dried in the shower block so to spend more time inside a building rather than outside. I set a new low for pitiful dinners, feasting on biscuits and chocolate and water, a far cry from Jon Nichols’ chorizo fueled feast or my Gran’s amazing Sunday roast. The weather continued, slowly getting worse, into the next day, destination Canterbury.
And so you can imagine my excitement when I found a justifiably cheap hostel that night, and the further increase in morale when I discovered breakfast was free. But picture my mood when it turned out that the weather was seemingly on my side all of a sudden, the wind carried me out of Canterbury next morning a happy man, not even my inaugural being-shat-on-by-a-seagull dampened my spirits. But what was on the way, what was on the horizon, most definitely would dampen something.
It was when I turned into the campsite and was shown to my pitch that I finally faced the wind, and let’s just say I’m surprised my face stayed on.
For me, camping is approached as an endeavour of increasing luxury – which sounds good until you consider the point at which one begins. Especially in conditions like this, you start off dead, and build your way up from there: keep your corpse dry, get your corpse off the dirt, get your corpse away from the wind, and then you’re probably going to survive. After that you start to look at bare minimums of comfort, a mat so you don’t wake up with the entire backside of your body frozen to the floor or cramped like Joseph Merrick, a sleeping bag for obvious reasons – as well more inventive ones, such as sleeping with your clothes for tomorrow so they’re nice and toasty warm in the morning. This is where my camping sophistication stops. I have no cooker and thus no hot meal, and most importantly, nowhere to keep my bike dry, but yet these were both things I’d be needing tonight, a memory of the forecast came to me; a storm was coming, impressive enough that it had a name, which I’ve since forgotten. Somewhere south-west across the sea was a huge cyclone of fluffy white cloud and grey, completely unrepresentative of the hell it would raise, making it’s merry way for me on the gales.
Pitching the tent, which would grant me the first three commodities of not dying a miserable death in a field outside Birchington, was a challenge in itself. The wind threatened to blow the entire thing away. There was a brave young couple next door to me wrestling with a tent twice the size of their car. I asked them if they wanted any help,
“Nah, I think we’re okay now,” replied Jack.
And then Alice, who saw my shirt, got me talking about the trip. Within 5 minutes they’d agreed to take the bike into their tent for the night, and by that evening we were drinking in the bar and playing pool. If the weather wasn’t great, at-least my neighbours were.
That night, my tent took its first real beating. The winds were gale force, the rain was so heavy I couldn’t decipher the individual drops on the roof. I woke up and enjoyed the easter egg Mum had sent to the campsite (Mums will be Mums) for breakfast, had a bit more of a chat with Jack and Alice nextdoor, and once the tent was dried and packed away, a feat which fascinated my new friends, I was off. It had been Alice’s first time out camping, and I really hope she enjoyed it. Campsites could do with more folk like them.
And so out into the world I went, through Margate, which was pretty depressing, though I might just have been getting bored of England, it’s hard to tell, because I would find Dover to be the same. I’m getting ahead of myself, because before Dover was the ride to Dover, a delightful day spent rolling around the heel of England, right? Nope.
That wind had only got stronger, and it was right in my face as I trudged slowly towards the coast. It was the perfect day for my first puncture of course, which was an interesting fix, on the side of a busy A-road, nearly getting blown over as I pumped the wheel back up, my fingers completely numb. I couldn’t have wished for the continent more.
I had a B&B pitstop that night, 1km from the port, so to make catching my early ferry less of a fuss. I thought it was a great idea, as nice as hosts are, it’s a social experience, which makes leaving early difficult. So I set all my various possessions charging, went for a final Spoons dinner (like a true king), rang my friend Myles and then went to bed. Come morning, I woke up at 6:45, went downstairs for breakfast and waited.
I had thought about passing up on breakfast all together, but then I would have only payed for half of my first B&B experience, making it a B. Also, the manager of the place was ill and her husband was still getting to grips with hospitality, but he was clearly enjoying it, so I felt no urge to stop him. However, things drew on and on until half past 8, at which point my ferry was supposed to be leaving. He didn’t seem to care, and frankly given the weather outside I was noone to disagree with him either. It was only when he told me they didn’t accept card that I started to wonder if things could have been better organised by both parties.
With unfathomable optimism he looked at his watch before bidding me goodbye, I’m not sure what it said but the time was already quarter to nine, yet he still gave me a motivating “with legs that big you should just about be able to make it in time!”
I’m not sure if he thought I was such a strong cyclist that Lunette was capable of time travel, but the odds were definitely against me. It must have been about 50 words since I mentioned the wind, but that too was against me, still, just in case you’d assumed otherwise.
Ferry ports are strange places, especially on a bike. I was the only cyclist in a vast queue of cars and lorries. I pulled some smirks, some laughs, and quite a few concerned glances. I lipread at-least 3 conversations in nearby vehicles about ‘that boy on the bike’ or similar, and probably whether I was even allowed here. I didn’t feel all that welcome, it has to be said, caravans and trailers usually leaving me surrounded as if I were in a room with walls that closed in, but nobody came to rescue me or throw me out, and so there I remained, queuing behind all sorts of vast 4+ wheeled traffic. My cycling shorts might be immensely dashing but they aren’t too warm, and my baselayer only really works when I’m moving, which I wasn’t. Combine that with the wind that conspired to send the bike sideways every 5 seconds and you have one of the coldest hours of your life. Was the queue always this long? It would turn out it wasn’t. When I got to the booth the man looked as tired as I did, and when I delivered my long-rehearsed
“Sorry I’ve missed my ferry, it’s been a crazy morning with the weather and all”, he simply responded
“It’s about to get worse I’m afraid. All the ferries are cancelled because of the weather. We’ve put everybody on the 12:05.”
I’ve no idea how many boats had been axed that morning, but my basic knowledge of maths told me that given it would likely be more than one, there would be far more people now booked onto one ferry than one ferry can actually hold. Either that or we were about to be shown the true ability of P&O ships to fill themselves ten times over for one voyage. Maybe it was also they who developed my capability to travel through time. Never-the-less, the guy at the booth was very friendly, both bemused and impressed by the fact I was on a bike I think, and so he put me at the front of one of the loading queues. Everybody also got a generous £2 voucher for their troubles. Boarding the ferry itself, when it finally opened, was good fun too. I was VIP, on first with no one else being allowed to even move before I was safely on the vessel. All the drivers and their families gazed at the spectacle of this regal road cyclist, all loaded up, glide up the ramp, nodding at his subjects in high-vis, and boarding the royal barge. Once that moment was over I managed to get lost in the hold for a while, opened a few doors I almost definitely wasn’t supposed to open, and then was escorted to the deck by one of my servants, sorry, one of the hardhats.
I’ve been on some rocky boats before, but this was something else. The wind – yes, the wind! – was still at it, tossing us this way and that as we crossed the channel. At times it felt like we were witnessing a recreation of the Pirates of the Caribbean scene ‘Up is Down’, and we’d soon be exercising our third supernatural power of the day, alternative planes of existence. My Starbucks slid up and down the table while I swapped over the money in my wallet, this was Euro-mode activate. My lights were on the other side of the bike, I had even intentionally put the brighter sock on my left foot in the morning. I was physically prepared for riding on the right, but was I mentally prepared?
I’d already been on the right side of the road for a few days in Lanzarote, so it was more a case of re-learning, but even then I found myself drifting towards the left of the road whenever I spent too long inside my own head. You’ll never guess what else was there too. That’s right! Wind. Like a permanent push on my right shoulder it willed me to embrace my imperial customs and die an impressively quick and messy death by head-on-collision with a French driver. Isn’t wind great? My panniers acted like parachutes, catching all the air they could, like a child on a windy day on the playground, lifting their coat in a bid to fly away from school.
But it was all in vain, the realisation was still there: I was abroad. I had made it here on this piece of metal, entirely under my own steam. This was an entirely new world, even the road signs were different, the number plates on the cars passing by, the markings on the roads, the style of the tarmac, streetlights. All seemed foreign, this was not England anymore, it was not home. I was 100% travelling now.
I would celebrate first with some French rain, completely different to the soft, slow, day-long English rain, French rain is quick, it comes out of nowhere and disappears a few minutes later, but while it’s there, my god, it drenches everything. It washed me of the last dregs of my Odin-given illness, my grogginess from the early morning, and it washed away England, it washed away English, it washed away security and comfort. I was headed straight for Saint-Omer, and I didn’t have a clue what it was going to be like when I got there. But I at-least knew it would be new.
Day 19 of 179
1081km (672 miles) cycled
1 farewell Papa John’s