I left London with a hole in one sock and seven different USB cords to cycle around the world. A journey of 28,000 miles – from London to London, via Europe along the Rhine, Danube, Asia and the Americas – started with a strangled big toe and a lot of fumbling as I tried to plug in my “leaving to cycle around the world” playlist. I turned right at the end of my road – I heard one last “whoop” from my friends, who were standing outside the house with our cat, triggering tears every time I thought about them – and the heavens opened. Ewan McGregor, whose face I had stuck to the sleeve of my handlebar bag in place of a map, looked disappointed.
But London was quiet and the rain soon passed: with the sentimentality of someone leaving home I wished I had discovered London’s Greenway before I left the city for a year and a half. Early on a Bank Holiday Monday morning it was all but empty, curving through Stratford’s Olympic Park and out through east London into Essex.
I was more nervous than I had realised that morning, and I needed to have my head shaved, so I had no breakfast. I sat in the bathroom of my home in Islington eating a handful of Quinoa chips while my housemate Emma restored my buzzcut, and said goodbye to neighbours who dropped by. By the fifth hill, I seriously regretted not eating more. A friend had given me two packets of Kendal mintcake – emergency rations, perhaps given in memory of that time I almost starved on a cycle tour in Bosnia – and I was genuinely concerned I would have to eat them on the first day. Luckily the pub where I was due to meet two housemates came into view at the top of a hill before the stars I was seeing obscured my vision too much. Lunch was an easier goodbye – we had two pints, we joked about the trip, we thought about swapping socks – and I set off back into Essex with just 20 miles to cover until Maldon, where I planned to wild camp that night.
Despair – at the hills, at the weather, at the fact I had no home to go back to – set in about twenty minutes later. I scaled a massive hill slowly, my knees ready to explode, to applause from passers by. A road cyclist who had passed me on the way up waited at the top to make sure I was OK. “I can’t believe you did that when you’re carrying so much,” he said. I wanted to tell him about the mountains in Bosnia; about the hills in Croatia; about the fact that all this would pale in comparison to the Andes. Instead I puffed out: “Are there any more like that between here and Maldon?” We descended slowly, side by side. “Not like that, no,” he assured me as I took a right turn – “that’s a lovely way” – into a wood coated with bluebells. Sun cut through the trees and the road turned downwards and the scent of the wildflowers became overwhelming at the same moment as the music I was listening to and I cried, properly, with happiness, for the first time on the journey, to the alarm of the families and small children dawdling their way along the trail.
I was pleased as punch with my wild camping spot that night – lakeside, secluded, the only sound the noise of fish leapfrogging one another in the water – until I saw someone with a torch on the far bank, then in the dark hallucinated a white figure watching my tent from further down the lane.
I slept badly – dreaming of haunted houses and slasher movies – and woke up to the roar of a Quad Bike and a woman saying, “that’s an odd place to put a tent.”
There is no dignified way to extract yourself from a tent in a hurry. First of all there is the initial confusion at being woken up by someone you cannot see in a place you can’t quite remember the location of – expressed in a serious of very British noises like, “oh, gosh, hang on, wait a moment, I’m terribly sorry”. This continues while you wrestle with a series of zips, punctuated by noisy swearing; the sleeping bag, the sleeping compartment, the inner door, the outer door. Then there is the Cossack Dance-like exit, because you cannot stand up in the doorway. Finally I stood upright – shaven-headed, puffy-eyed and wearing my pyjamas, to address the smart woman on the tractor bike. “Hello,” I said.
“The campsite is down there.” Beat. “This is a fishing lake.” “There’s a campsite?” I said, bleakly. She was very kind; reckoning the cost of my sleeping on her lake down from £10 to £5 to nothing when it turned out the only cash I had was in Euro. She wished me luck riding around the world: I promised to disappear before passers by thought the fishing season had begun.
As a result I was on the road by 8am, and had to string out the rest of the journey to Harwich. I had coffee in a field and lunch at a pub outside Colchester, where I stayed as long as I could before they threw me out for a wake. Even so I arrived at the port seven hours before the ferry was due to sail, at 23.00, and sat forlornly in the waiting room Instagramming pictures of bluebells. But cyclists, it seems, are a prompt bunch; soon the waiting area was filled with bikers of all kinds, laden and unladen.
Everyone wanted to photograph everyone else’s bikes, and we moved as a collective to the second waiting area, after passport control. There was Michael, who travelled without a smartphone and excused himself every few minutes to jot down notes in his diary, in French, possibly about us. I met him again on the other side, in Holland, mourning the loss of his MP3 player. “Did you leave it onboard? Do you think it was stolen?” He shrugged. “If it is gone, it is gone. I’ll get another one.” There was James. I knew James was cycling around the world because, when asked by the others where he was going, he hesitated, then said, as I had to anyone who asked: “well, if everything goes to plan…” Also he had a flag. Michael, James and I sat up late into the night at the ferry bar. Michel, who had toured extensively, advised against over-planning and to always carry overshoes. James, who, like me, had toured only a little, worried that the drone he had brought along was excessive.
My cabin was sumptuous – without doubt the best accommodation I would see for a month – and I woke with a fuzzy head, two hours later, and an article to file. I worked over breakfast and hit “send” as the ferry clunked into Holland. And then out: untying and reloading my bike in a cloud of fumes on the car deck, down the ramp through passport control – “where are you going?” “back to London” – and on to the first of Holland’s many cycle routes. There was a cluster – a who’s who – of all the cyclists who I had met on the ferry, stood around a signpost, at once in awe of the incredible cycling infrastructure and totally bewildered at which route to take. There seemed to be about five ways to Rotterdam: I took one that wound through open farmland, riding alongside Pam, from an English group, for twenty minutes before I discovered she and her husband lived down the road from my parents. “Go and see them when you get back,” I implored her when our ways parted. “Tell them I’m OK!”
Rotterdam sneaks up on you from the quiet countryside of the coast, the small road that wound around empty forests suddenly become the main road over the hefty Erasmus bridge. According to my guidebook I had completed the day’s stage, but with nowhere to wild camp I set off to bag a second stage. Along the high dyke that exits Rotterdam along the Lek I leapfrogged a German couple on their way to Amsterdam via the windmills at Kinderdijk. We made friends on a ferry across the Lek, where I determinedly tried to disembark at every stop except the right one, then said goodbye when I blew past a sign indicating that you had to pay a toll to cycle past the windmills. You probably don’t, I mimed, then stood on the pedals and made a speedy exit past the toll booth, looking back in time to capture their horror. They overtook me later while I stopped to photograph windmills: there was no toll, they confirmed urgently, as if the spectre of not paying one might have haunted me all the way round.
The path between the windmills was crowded but thinned quickly into the evening and the wide flood plains. I was heading for a “pole camping” site that I’d read about online; a small clearing where wild camping was permitted within a certain distance of – well, a pole. It was a compromise between another sleepless night in the wild and an expensive night on a campsite. I used my GPS to track the route to the co-ordinates I’d found online, becoming less and less certain by the second. Locked gate after locked gate seemed ominous. When had the blog I’d been reading last been updated?
But a short way down an unpaved road the hedges gave way to a rickety bridge over a stream and a secluded glade. I could not have been happier in a five star hotel room: I put on some music, I put up a washing line, I washed my cooking pots using the pump. I sat a little way off the road and watched the sunset over the fields, my Kindle neglected as the sky turned a brilliant amber on the guidebook page for tomorrow’s ride.
James – mentioned above – is riding around the world for charity. Please support him: you can visit his blog here and donate.